Thursday, Aug. 16, 2007 | Last week, Jerry Butkiewicz, San Diego County’s labor boss; his pal, Steve Cushman, the port commissioner; and Malin Burnham, the tycoon, philanthropist and face of San Diego boosters, were scheduled to meet together.

Undoubtedly, the topic of discussion was going to be the proposed development project on Chula Vista’s bay front — the Gaylord convention center and hotels.

But Butkiewicz said Cushman canceled the outing. And Cushman, vacationing in Alaska, said he couldn’t comment on it because he couldn’t comment on anything related to Gaylord.

The port, he said, has given itself a gag order on the matter.

Let’s say these three could have met that day. What might they have talked about?

I asked Burnham what he might add to the discussion. Gaylord Entertainment has successfully blamed the region’s unions for scuttling this project. And somehow, some way, this project became the single greatest thing imaginable for the Chula Vista bay front. Its potential demise has outraged local boosters.

Burnham said he didn’t know the deal well enough to suggest anything specific.

“I guess I’m kind of at a loss for ideas and frustrated like most San Diegans are. I believe that with projects of this magnitude and importance, it’s time for all of us to put our individual preferences aside in favor of the good of the larger community,” he said.

So not much there. I asked if he thought that the public agencies involved should put in more money to the deal. Right now, Gaylord will benefit from $308 million in public subsidies for the construction. Does the company need more public support?

“I don’t know enough about it to answer the question because I don’t know how much of a gap there is financially or what needs to be done to fill that gap,” Burnham said.

But there is a gap.

“I don’t believe the community should be called upon to fill an economic gap but if there is a situation where more square footage could be contributed that’s something that would be possible,” he said.

Bingo. There are many ways that public agencies could support Gaylord financially that are different than just paying for the sewer lines and pipe lines that lead up to the facility. There are ways to subsidize Gaylord’s enterprise that don’t include straight infusions of cash into the deal. The port, for example, could allow Gaylord to be built bigger than had been planned. The port, for example, could decide to charge Gaylord a little less rent than other tenants of the waterfront pay the agency.

Something has caused Gaylord to back out of the deal — repeatedly. Although unions have taken much of he blame for chasing Gaylord away — over and over again — the company keeps coming back for a reason. If it’s true, as the company maintains, that the unions made it impossible to work here, and the unions haven’t changed, then what could possibly have lured the company to come back?

Something did.

If unions really killed this deal, they should have been able to bring it back. But the unions haven’t changed since a meeting in late June.

Butkiewicz said that, in January, his unions had come to a tentative Project Labor Agreement with Gaylord. These types of agreements are commonly cited as gifts to labor, but they hold one key advantage for developers: They prohibit union workers from going on strike or stopping work because of a grievance. If a union goes on strike during construction of a major project like the one proposed for Chula Vista, that union can get its pants sued off.

On May 15, Gaylord’s Bennett Westbrook wrote a letter to Butkiewicz saying that his company was on board with everything that the unions wanted except two things: He didn’t want employees to have to become members of the unions that were doing certain parts of the project. For example, if a roofer started to work for the company doing roofs for the project, Gaylord didn’t want to have to require that worker to join a union.

The unions, at first, resisted that. Their version of the agreement would only allow a worker eight days on the job site before requiring him or her to join the union that might be working on a particular part of the project.

Westbrook’s second point was that he didn’t want contractors to have to “establish relationships” with the unions that do a particular type of job on the project. This is the much talked about part of the agreement that would have required Gaylord to first seek out three union bids on a particular part of the project before allowing non-union companies to get the job.

In a June 15 letter to the unions, Westbrook restated that point: “Gaylord does not agree that all contractors participating on the project must sign an agreement with the craft union or unions that cover the work the contractor will be performing on the project.”

Butkiewicz said these were horrible sticking points. But, then came a final meeting between him, other union officials and representatives of Gaylord at the Marriott Gaslamp on June 29.

Butkiewicz said that he caved in and compromised on that first point of contention. Workers on the Gaylord job site would not be required to join a union.

He says that Gaylord didn’t know what to do with that. The company’s team left the meeting room to talk about it. They came back, asked for clarification, and left again. They returned again and said the company would get back to the unions. Then came the announcement that has created the most tension between labor and business in this community in years — Gaylord was out.

According to Butkiewicz, the unions thought they were still negotiating.

This is obviously Butkiewicz’ version of the meeting. A Gaylord spokesperson wouldn’t discuss the negotiations.

But the point, I think, is clear: The unions say they thought they were still talking. Gaylord then engaged in that well-publicized drama queen dance of grabbing its coat and leaving the party in a huff. It left all of us to wonder what we did wrong to make her mad.

I can think of only one reason why she was really mad. Like Malin Burnham said, it appears that there’s a “financial gap” — an unappealing difference between what Gaylord thinks it will cost to build the project and what profit it thinks it can make from the project.

The city of Chula Vista and the port could certainly fill that gap somehow.

After proclaiming that it was done with San Diego, Gaylord left. Then it came back. Then it left, again. Now it is back in discussions with the port.

Port officials won’t talk about how they got Gaylord back to the table for these most recent, secretive discussions with the company.

But it will certainly be interesting to find out.

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

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