Freebies for the Rich

Photo by Jack GouldUnder the guise of a housing and urban-development project, the city of Garden Grove has given away millions of dollars' worth of land to wealthy hotel developers, one of whom now faces a union effort to organize his workers.

The land giveaway was orchestrated at City Hall but erupted in a full-blown, noisy demonstration at the Oct. 11 grand opening of the Crowne Plaza Hotel. Some 50 pro-union demonstrators held signs and chanted slogans for more than an hour. The protesters, members and supporters of Local 681 of the Hotel & Restaurant Employees Union (HERE), are rank-and-file hotel workers, but none work at the Crowne Plaza.

"We're here to push for the right of those workers to unionize," declared HERE Local 681 President Mary Ann Mahoney as she was approached by hostile-looking hotel security guards.

Several picket signs drew attention to the fact that the city of Garden Grove gave the land now beneath the Crowne Plaza to a hotel developer. The city purchased the land two years ago with $17.7 million in federal funds.

"The land for this hotel was paid for with federal redevelopment money, and then it was given to the developer for free," charged John Earl, a researcher with HERE Local 681. "The developer should give something back."

At the very least, Earl said, organizers want hotel owner Timothy R. Busch to allow workers to unionize without interference. "So far, he's said, 'No thanks,'" he says.

That's no surprise. Busch is founder and president of the Busch Firm, a corporate law firm in Irvine, and sits on the board of directors of the right-wing Claremont Institute. Fellow board members include such famously anti-labor conservatives as Howard Ahmanson Jr., the Bible-thumping conservative who has funded several anti-union state initiatives, and Orange County Republican Party chairman Tom Fuentes.

Crowne Plaza is too big a target for the hotel workers' union to ignore. With 384 rooms and several hundred employees, it is by far the largest hotel to open anywhere in Orange County during the past year. The union is, by Orange County standards, no midget, either: it represents a few thousand workers, most of whom work at the Disneyland Hotel, the Anaheim Hilton Towers, the Anaheim Pond, Edison International Field and the Anaheim Convention Center.

Besides the Crowne Plaza, five other large hotels are under construction in Garden Grove, part of the city's bid to take advantage of a boom in Disneyland-related tourism. Such hotel construction has made the city something less than the happiest place on earth. Occasionally threatening eminent domain, city officials in 1998 pushed landowners to sell their property, dislocating a mobile-home park full of senior citizens who opposed the hotel project, apartment renters, and small businesses ("There Goes the Neighborhoods" by Jon Hall, March 6, 1998). Among the razed buildings were three low-cost hotels and the Sage Park Apartments, which consisted of 96 units rented mainly to maids and busboys.

The city's financing of the land deals has been just as ugly. In 1998, as the redevelopment projects kicked off, a city official estimated that Garden Grove's Agency for Community Development (ACD) was a whopping $144 million in debt. ACD is betting the hotels will boost tax revenues and rescue the agency from ruin.

In borrowing the federal funds, city officials agreed to set aside 20 percent of the money for affordable housing elsewhere in the city. But so far, the city doesn't have much to show for that money. Susan Emery, the city's housing manager, was at a loss to explain what affordable housing the city has actually built with redevelopment funds in recent years. The only affordable housing under construction, she said, is Brentwood Village, a small project of single-family detached homes. There's no guarantee that those homes will be affordable for low-income people.

"We have some provisions to keep the prices affordable," Emery explained. "But to be honest, I don't know what those prices are going to be."

The union says it's working to make certain hotel workers in the city can do better than low-income housing. "The Crowne Plaza's workers should be able to capitalize in a fair way on the economic and tourist boom in this county," Mahoney said. "We're here to make sure that happens."


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