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Thursday, September 29, 2005 | “The children of California shall be our children.”
Or so Leland Stanford is quoted as saying at the death of his only son, Leland Stanford Junior.
From that moment, one of the great robber barons of his time took up the mission of helping people. Foremost was his establishment of Leland Stanford Junior University on farmland he owned in Palo Alto.
In San Diego, we have our own ruthless capitalists. None stood out more than Corky McMillin. Starting with nothing, McMillin created an empire to respect. The competitive zeal to succeed at any cost not only made him the largest locally-owned homebuilder, it made him one of the most powerful local power brokers.
McMillin engendered enormous loyalty of those on his team. This loyalty to McMillin extended to local power players and politicians. Over the past 10 years, McMillin and his company employees, family and friends have been at the top of the list of those funding local political races. Actions taken by government representatives show their investment handsomely paid off.
Yet McMillin wanted a lasting legacy. The opportunity came in the early 1990s when a military base closure round was initiated.
Indications of McMillin’s early Naval Training Center (NTC) involvement show up in unusually heavy campaign contributions to Congressman Brian Bilbray, who was key in getting the Naval Training Center for local insiders. Even contributions to Congressman Duncan Hunter, whose brother James works as a vice president for McMillin, received no comparable largess. After Bilbray lost his congressional seat, McMillin hired former Bilbray staffer Megan Conley to do public relations for the NTC privatization. Bilbray’s former chief of staff, Pat Baker, showed up to numerous meetings to ensure the giveaway plan went through.
When then-city Mayor Susan Golding obtained NTC, a developer selection occurred. When both her handpicked citizens committee and the City Manager selected Lennar Communities over McMillin for the project, a two-week delay of the council selection vote surprisingly occurred. The given reason was for the council representatives to be lobbied by the developers.
Looking back, there is evidence to believe that McMillin was preselected and that the recommendation of Lennar became an obstacle to get around. McMillin’s lawyer for the deal, Brian Seltzer of Seltzer Caplan McMahon and Vitek, had been chairman of Golding’s Finance Committee (fundraising) for her 1996 mayoral campaign. He had also co-chaired the campaign finance committee for Councilwoman Judy McCarty in 1994 and Councilman Harry Mathis in 1996. Throw in that the local council representative Byron Wear always looked to support Susan Golding’s endeavors and that Christine Kehoe, after the vote, received an extraordinary amount of campaign support from McMillin and Seltzer in subsequent elections. It was apparent that Lennar, whose political contributions were $500, did not have the political investment necessary to get the deal.
Once McMillin had NTC in hand, an avalanche of deal changes commenced. What started as a bad public deal was methodically stripped of every public return. At council meetings to pass deal dissipations, McMillin could be seen huddled in the council back room with his team – his employees, members of the City Redevelopment Agency, City Development Services staffers and representatives of the City Attorney’s office. Watching that cooperation, McMillin’s face would shine with contentment.
In the hallways, McMillin avoided conversation with opponents. Instead, he would give a cunning smile that relayed that he had the power and there was nothing that the public could do.
Yet as increasingly brazen changes to the deal were brought forth, public furor mounted. It became less easy to have the City Council neglect their public duty. As the outrageous nature of his deal change requests were deliberated at council, McMillin often would sit and fume when decisions were delayed or slightly modified.
During a stretch last year when McMillin had suffered a couple of setbacks at the Planning Commission, McMillin attended a Coastal Commission hearing on the park issue.
McMillin stood in the back of the room listening, arms defiantly crossed, to the Save Our NTC testimony. Afterwards, Coastal Commissioner Scott Peters refuted the need to save the review stand and made the motion to move the park plan along as-is. All the while, McMillin icily stared directly at Scott Peters, making it known how much money he and his friends had invested in his political career. When the coastal commission vote was taken, the other coastal commissioners sheepishly went along with Peters.
The relentless assault on the public’s return continued through this year. Then-Councilman Zucchet, who avoided taking money from McMillin only to have McMillin’s lawyer – Brian Seltzer – greatly help pay off his campaign debt, was there to lead the charge. A contractual obligation to build a resort hotel was changed to deny promised public access and stiff the city of $1 million in annual hotel tax revenue. Demolition of buildings on the National Register of Historic Places that had been promised for public use was approved to create a strip shopping mall. The park, which was to be a McMillin expense, became a $2 million-plus profit center with the city picking up the $500,000 annual maintenance costs.
After these shenanigans, the City Redevelopment Agency finally released Naval Training Center audits. Gone was any chance of the city receiving their promised 50 percent share of deal profits. Inserted was a change to enable McMillin’s supposed financial partner, Merced Partners, to share in half of McMillin’s rake. The audit shows that Merced Partners barely put funds into the deal. If Merced Partners is not providing capital, who are the hidden beneficiaries of this secret limited liability corporation?
Now that there is little more left to extract from the Naval Training Center, McMillin has passed away. Unlike Leland Stanford, who took his own property and with his own funds built a first-class university, McMillin did the opposite.
Taking a state-of-the-art training facility with sophisticated capabilities far beyond what we understand today, McMillin reduced it to rubble to build his corporate home. Instead of his own resources, the property transferred to him for a pittance with more than $40 million in taxpayer subsidies and counting.
McMillin had the power to emulate Stanford and rise above his cutthroat business actions to bestow a timeless gift to countless future generations. That he took another course is his legacy and a sad statement about the aims of San Diego’s current ruling class.
John McNab, president of Save Our NTC, has fought for the preservation and public use of San Diego’s public lands. He can be reached at