Saturday, July 7, 2007 | As the minutes ticked down on Gaylord Entertainment’s bay-front development in Chula Vista, Mayor Cheryl Cox spoke one last time to labor leader Tom Lemmon.

It was 11:30 a.m. on Thursday. In a last-ditch attempt to broker a compromise, Cox offered to buy Lemmon a plane ticket to Gaylord Entertainment headquarters in Nashville, Tenn.

A flight was leaving in three hours and Gaylord was willing to meet, Cox said. A Gaylord vice president told Cox he was willing to put Lemmon up in the company’s Nashville hotel. The clock was ticking. The negotiating deadline between Gaylord and organized labor groups had passed six days earlier.

Before he’d agree to go, Lemmon told Cox he wanted a formal invitation from Gaylord. Cox offered the informal invite instead.

Lemmon told the mayor he’d call back by 1 p.m. Lemmon, business manager of the San Diego Building & Construction Trades Council, never heard from Gaylord — and never called Cox back.

As residents and leaders throughout the South Bay sort through the inevitable finger-pointing and name-calling and begin reconciling what doomed the massive $1 billion convention center and hotel project, that unreturned phone call should be remembered as the final straw.

But the contentious negotiations that led to Gaylord’s withdrawal Friday had been ongoing — and unproductive — for months. Ultimately, labor leaders say the failed negotiations boiled down to one point: Where Gaylord would find the estimated 6,500 workers it needed to build the 400,000-square-foot convention center and 2,000-room hotel.

Labor leaders say by Friday, with that deadline looming hours away, they’d scrapped every other demand they had — including a once-key provision to hire solely union workers. But with the project being boosted by a $308 million public subsidy from the city and Unified Port of San Diego, Lemmon said he wouldn’t sign a labor agreement allowing workers to come from outside Chula Vista.

In a farewell letter to Chula Vista officials, Bennett Westbrook, a Gaylord senior vice president, said his company had proposed giving preference to local workers — to the extent the local market could provide skilled workers. Giving into the union demands would increase the project’s cost by $50 million to $75 million, he said.

Here is where the clarity ends and the finger-pointing about who doomed the project begins.

Lemmon: “We’re not the ones who walked away. It was Gaylord’s choice.”

Westbrook: “Their unwavering, unreasonable demands render the project unfeasible for our company and our shareholders. … In truth, the unions are attempting to generate jobs for only its union members.”

The Gaylord development would have been the keystone in what Chula Vista officials have described as a renaissance for the city’s bay front. Gaylord promised to invest $846 million of private financing. The port and city agreed to add $178 million to pay to improve infrastructure — roads, sewage lines — to prepare the 550-acre waterfront site for development. The two agencies agreed to invest another $130 million in Gaylord’s convention center.

Once complete, the project would have added an estimated 3,500 jobs to the region’s economy and converted the barren, industrial, inaccessible waterfront into what city officials envisioned as a bustling recreational and hospitality complex.

But its bay-front location — the very thing that made the project so appealing — exposed it to a long list of environmental concerns. It would bring construction equipment, traffic and new environmental impacts to an area that sits close to the South San Diego National Wildlife Refuge. Concerns about the large project’s massive electricity appetite hovered, too.

Environmental groups — the Environmental Health Coalition, San Diego Coastkeeper and Surfrider Foundation — formed a coalition with labor leaders. The risk the group posed to Gaylord was clear. If organized labor couldn’t reach an agreement with Gaylord, a lawsuit on environmental grounds was possible.

Representatives from the environmental groups involved are quick to point out that they never threatened Gaylord with litigation. But Gaylord clearly perceived a threat. In the company’s farewell letter to Chula Vista, Westbrook spells out the company’s interpretation: “Absent accepting their demands, the Trades Council, working in conjunction with the Environmental Health Coalition, has made it clear that it will take all steps to disrupt the project. Lawsuits … will significantly delay the project and further increase costs.”

That made labor negotiations vital.

Gaylord set a June 30 to resolve a deal. When that date passed without a resolution, officials in Chula Vista began talking about their once-heralded project in muted tones. It was on borrowed time, they said. Negotiations were perilous and headed south.

Ultimately, the city’s seventh attempt to develop its bay front — one in a long line of decades of failed promises — was doomed and the city’s officials and business leaders were left to face television cameras and offer conciliatory words to their constituents.

Mayor Cheryl Cox: “Chula Vista has lost jobs. Our community has been robbed of opportunity.”

Port Commissioner Mike Bixler: “This is an economic tragedy for the South Bay and San Diego County.”

Immediately, criticism began pouring in. U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, D-Chula Vista, led the attack during a union-organized conference call with reporters. He said he was shocked at the lackadaisical role Cox had taken in negotiations and lambasted her for turning labor leaders into scapegoats for Gaylord’s withdrawal.

“It’s not the mayor’s job to take the side of Gaylord versus labor,” Filner said. “It’s the mayor’s job to … help that agreement come to pass. She was aloof until the end here. I don’t think that’s leadership. And I was shocked by that.”

Cox responded that she did not believe it was her role to be involved as a negotiator. “I’m a little perplexed by his comments,” Cox said of Filner. “I’ve been actively involved and encouraging the process with labor.”

Chula Vista staked its waterfront vision on Gaylord. Now, Gaylord is gone, and Chula Vista doesn’t have a Plan B. The City Council will soon schedule a discussion about the development’s impacts on its bay-front master plan. It will be without Gaylord — though the company left a window open to return to Chula Vista.

“Such an abrupt ending comes with a great deal of regret for our company,” Gaylord’s Westbrook wrote in his Friday farewell to the city. “We would welcome the opportunity to work with the City and Port under different circumstances in the future.”

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

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