Only truth in USOC building debacle: ‘we are all screwed’

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On Nov. 25, Assistant City Manager Mike Anderson sent a breathless e-mail to LandCo CEO Ray Marshall. The subject line: “URGENT-NEED TO MEET.”

The e-mail read, in part, “Ray: the city’s underwriting team advised yesterday that they will not be able to market the city’s COPs for the USOC HQ building unless we obtain a signed sub-lease from the USOC without a cancellation clause if LandCo does not raise the $16 million for the OTC improvements. In other words, we can’t issue the COPs and we are all screwed unless the 16 million dollar issue is resolved!”

Any banker, any developer or any half-awake CEO in the private sector would have understood exactly what was happening at that moment: the U.S. Olympic Committee downtown headquarters deal had just died.

Forget all of the subsequent maneuvering, the secret meetings, the cheery press releases, the official stonewalling, the desperate attempts to rebuild Humpty-Dumpty – the deal, as originally conceived, was dead.

That was not the time for secrecy. That was not the time for Anderson, Mayor Lionel Rivera and various City Council members to play “Who wants to be an investment banker?”

That was not the time for cover-ups, denials and official secrecy.

Much was, and still is, at stake in the USOC deal. Some have argued that if the city fails to retain the organization, the region will suffer a crushing economic blow, from which it will not recover for decades.

Others are more sanguine – but few believe that the interests of the region would be well-served by the departure of the USOC for greener pastures.

With so much on the table, you’d think that city leaders would have reached out to the community and would have been open and honest about the deal’s progress, or lack thereof.

The city is not a private business; it is the tangible and precious expression of our local democracy. Transparency in government is not just an impractical notion to which politicians pay lip service, but absolutely vital.

We don’t know what would have happened had Anderson, Rivera & Co. chosen a different path to resuscitate the deal during November, but it’s hard to imagine a process more fumbling, more amateurish and less competent than that of the last five months.

We don’t know how things will play out – nor, we suspect, do those of our elected officials who pretend to be on top of things. They rather remind us of that famous scene in “Animal House,” in which Kevin Bacon, playing an obnoxious ROTC cadet, intones “Remain calm – all is well!” to a rioting crowd – which promptly tramples him to the ground.

If there’s to be a happy ending, let’s hope the audience has the good sense to boo some of the players off the stage and reserve a standing ovation for the one person who will have made it possible.

That would be G.E. Johnson CEO Jim Johnson, who has performed beyond any reasonable expectation.

Knowing that halting construction of the headquarters building would kill the deal for once and for all, Johnson has kept his crews on site. A man less dedicated to the well-being of his city would have pulled them long ago, given the deal’s shaky financing and antic principals.

We salute him, and hope that the other players can learn from him. It’s never too late for dignity, honesty and openness – especially if that’s the only way to save the deal.