Monday, Nov. 20, 2006 | Every time I think that discussion about building a new main library downtown has died, the The San Diego Union-Tribune editorial page makes good on its promise to reignite the cause.

So it was that on Oct. 29, the Union-Tribune wrote an editorial pleading with San Diegans – particularly the wealthy sort – not to let its dream of a new main library downtown die.

The U-T apparently decided that after several years of trying to beat its message into the heads of San Diego’s wealthiest of the wealthy that they should pony up big time for a new library, what the paper would do now was perhaps try to exploit some collective inferiority complex among San Diego’s aristocracy. The editorial trotted out Seattle as an example. The paper wrote that Seattle’s wealthiest two citizens Bill Gates and Paul Allen – those of the Microsoft fortune – had each contributed $20 million for that city’s new main library.

“San Diego is not without comparable entrepreneurs who surely must recognize the importance of a modern library, not merely for civic pride but as a resource for children and students of all ages in the expanding information age,” the U-T wrote.

Now let’s look at this carefully. Seattle generated $83.5 million from philanthropists for construction of its library. And this was done with a total of $40 million from the Microsoft founders.

San Diego needs to raise $82 million from wealthy donors for its library. This is assuming – without reason – that the cost of the project has not gone up in more than a year. That’s a generous assumption, but we’ll go with it for illustrative purposes right now.

So who are San Diego’s “comparable entrepreneurs” the U-T imagines might fork over comparable donations to the ones the Seattle library received?

Well, I don’t get to run in the same privileged circles that the U-T ed board does so I might not have met their secret billionaire club. I have to turn to Forbes magazine to see who might be worth enough to hand over that kind of money.

Bill Gates and Paul Allen are worth a combined $68 billion, according to Forbes.

According to Forbes, San Diego only has a couple of billionaires. One of them, at a net-worth of $1.2 billion is David Copley, who is the owner of the Union-Tribune. If you are to stick with Forbes, there are only two San Diegans who are wealthier than David Copley, and neither of them have more than $1.7 billion in assets, according to the magazine. They are: Alex Spanos, the owner of the Chargers, whom Forbes estimates is worth between $1.1 billion and Irwin Jacobs, the founder of Qualcomm, who has assets worth $1.7 billion, according to the magazine.

There’s a big difference between having $48 billion, like Bill Gates, and having $1.7 billion. Handing out $20 million is a fundamentally different thing for Gates than it is for your average billionaire. So, I have no idea to whom the U-T was referring when it discussed our “comparable entrepreneurs.”

Copley has become one of the only rich San Diegans to commit to financially supporting the new library venture. In March 2005, he sent a letter to former Mayor Dick Murphy affirming that commitment.

In the letter, Copley talked about his late mother Helen who appreciated literature, libraries and reading.

“If she were with us today, she would be hearing with dismay the suggestions from some that the city she loved cannot afford a world-class library system. Important as the local branches are, the keystone of the system is the central library. I am convinced the city desperately needs one,” Copley wrote.

But Copley only gave $2 million to the library cause. I use “only” rather liberally, of course, but think about it. Here the U-T is calling on San Diego’s “comparable entrepreneurs” to emulate Bill Gates and give tens of millions of dollars each to the library cause, yet Copley, who undoubtedly influences the editorial page’s view on this matter, will only give $2 million?

Like I said, Copley is one of the three richest guys in San Diego, but he will only give $2 million.

Who does Copley think he is calling out his fellow billionaires without putting his money where his mouth is?

Truth is, San Diego’s rich got to where they were by being smart with their money. And that’s not the trait that library fundraisers are looking for in their targets.

The official cost estimate of the new library construction has itself grown from $149 million in 2005, to $185 million now. And these estimates, keep in mind, were produced by people whose financial disclosures were just labeled fraudulent by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Cost estimates for construction projects like this are notoriously too low.

Take a look at the construction of two hospitals going on right now at the University of California, Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times just reported last week that construction of the Santa Monica-UCLA Orthopedic Hospital has gone way over budget. Supporters of the project originally estimated that it would cost $206 million to build; now costs have risen to $378 million. That’s the way these things happen, everywhere.

UCLA attributed the inflation to the rising cost of steel, concrete, drywall and other construction materials.

Those don’t come cheaper to San Diego.

In fact, just look at what has happened to the estimate of how much money San Diego will have to raise from private donors to build the new library: Barely more than a year ago, in April 2005, the city said in an official report that it only needed to get $50 million from philanthropists to build the new library.

And now? Let’s let the U-T tell it:

“Because of San Diego’s fiscal crisis, the $185 million library planned for the thriving ballpark district must be built without drawing on the city’s strapped general fund. To date, $103 million has been raised from other sources: $80 million from the Centre City Redevelopment [sic] Corp.’s flourishing treasury of downtown property tax receipts; a $20 million state library grant; and $3 million in announced philanthropic contributions. The rest – $82 million – must come from other private donors.”

So, in barely more than a year, the city would now have to raise $32 million more than it had planned.

The Centre City Development Corp.’s treasury is “flourishing” but that doesn’t mean it should hand over $80 million for this project. That money is meant for downtown. The city’s core is severely lacking in fire stations, schools, walkways of any worth and other vital infrastructure. The burden of downtown’s recent growth as a residential center would justify investments in any number of city improvements. Constructing a library, however, would be a luxury in which only a city very comfortable with its foundation should feel poised to indulge.

But ignoring infrastructure is what San Diegans do best. So, if, not persuaded by those worthy recipients of its largess, CCDC is still looking to give away money, it should send it to City Hall, which is facing a massive deficit. The impending budget crunch at City Hall is so bad that even the mayor’s promised staffing cuts won’t do the trick. And the mayor refuses to say yet what he plans to cut. It’s easy to say you’ll cut 1,000 employees. The mayor has made similar statements in the past. But actually choosing the services to cut will be something to behold.

The U-T ended its plea to San Diego’s rich very simply:

“With all the grim news at City Hall in the last three years, the prospect of finally replacing our disgraceful central library offers a glimmer of genuine civic achievement. This important endeavor must not be allowed to fall victim to San Diego’s financial woes. This is the moment for private benefactors to step up to the challenge.”

For those of us in the reality-based world, a “glimmer of genuine civic achievement” is not what San Diego needs right now. A much more important achievement for the city would be to, for once, see its problems for what they are and not pretend it can indulge in luxuries without sacrifice.

This is not a moment for “private benefactors to step up to the challenge” and participate in the fantasy that San Diego can afford such a facility. It is a time for San Diego’s elite to stand firm against such irrational expenditures, force the city to focus on the roads, fire departments and sewers it needs. Their money gives them a unique power to hold the city accountable for providing basic needs and balancing its budget.

They can help make the city strong right now. Only by doing that will they effectively turn the city into a place that is worthy of the monuments it desires.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that David Copley gave $3 billion to the library cause. The correct amount is $2 million. The story has been changed.

Please contact Scott Lewis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.