There's a story told by the OC millionaire set about Santa Ana developer Michael F. Harrah–he of the offensive-lineman build, ZZ Top beard and an ego as big as the black Cadillac Escalade he guns up Broadway–that may or may not be true, but it says all you need to know about the man. It's whispered that someone once asked him during a party at his Newport Beach home why he was so intent on building One Broadway Plaza, which would be the tallest building in Orange County history at 37 stories yet has cost Harrah nearly 15 years and millions of dollars without so much as a foundation poured. Harrah supposedly looked out from his house to the northeast, to where Santa Ana is as the crow flies, and told his guest, "So I can see it from my own back yard."
Harrah–who has carefully crafted a persona of a self-made man as easily at home on a Harley-Davidson as he is in the boardroom–has tried everything possible to get One Broadway Plaza built since voters gave him the go-ahead with a successful ballot measure in 2005. He got the Santa Ana City Council in 2010 to strike a pesky requirement in the original agreement that forced him to lease at least 50 percent of the building before any construction began. He unloaded dozens of buildings in Santa Ana and beyond to bolster his coffers. He played the part of Norma Rae to get job-hungry unions to support his plans, and he mouths conservative rhetoric to woo potential tenants. Harrah treated planning commissioners to trips on his private jet to look at condos in Hawaii he planned to sell to them and donated tens of thousands of dollars to politicians, including Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, a personal friend with whom he has posed for photos on the Instagram accounts of Santa Ana breastaurant owners. All along, Harrah and his acolytes slammed opponents as backwards-thinking troglodytes who dared to impede OC's own Baron von Haussmann, the man who created modern-day Paris from slums and ruins.
And now, Harrah is trying his most desperate measure yet: He wants to buy the Orange County Register and the Riverside Press-Enterprise.
National media watchers were at a loss for an explanation on Nov. 1, when a Freedom Communications press release revealed the company was declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy with the hopes that Harrah and current Register publisher Rich Mirman submit a bid in court to rescue the free-falling daily. Reporters from The New York Times to the Associated Press could only identify Harrah as a "local developer," which is kind of like describing Dana Rohrabacher as an "area politician."
"I believe very strongly in preserving the leading voice for news and information in Orange County and the Inland Empire," Harrah said. "By investing in Freedom, we are investing in the future of our community."
By "our community," of course, Harrah means "I finally have a tenant for my Freudian phallic fortress"–which he now has his biggest chance of building if the Register becomes his printing press.
It seems strange to outside observers that someone like Harrah might want to buy it–after all, developers haven't cared about owning newspapers since the days of the Los Angeles Times Chandler clan. But then, few developers are as adamant about embiggening their public persona via media as Harrah. Over the past decade, he has done everything possible to paint himself as Santa Ana's savior, sponsoring videos (the most recent one, Santa Ana: The Heart of Orange County, has Harrah flying a helicopter; with One Broadway Plaza in the frame, he finally sits to extol the virtues of OC's county seat), vanity magazines, even New Urbanism conferences. Key to all of these ostensibly independent productions is the idea that One Broadway Plaza is the final piece to transform the city from a Mexican wasteland into a gentrifier's paradise. Earlier this year, Harrah dropped mucho dinero with the Register on a nearly-weekly Sunday "sponsored content" series in the paper hailing his vision of the city.
Simply put, this is a man so in love with himself (can anyone find the magazine photo of him playing the upright bass during a staged jam session at his old Ambrosia restaurant?) and so obsessed with building his steel-and-glass simulacrum for all of the world to gaze upon that he's now willing to buy a newspaper to make it happen. That's the conspiracy theory going around Orange County Register employees: that Harrah wants to buy them just so they can become the tenants he needs for One Broadway Plaza, so the Register can become the propaganda hammer that will drown out and trash any critics, and so he can tear down the current Reg offices (which Harrah conveniently bought last year at a bargain rate) and flip that into other developments. Indeed, sources tell the Weekly that Harrah was spotted with Mirman multiple times this summer in the Register newsroom talking about future plans while looking out the windows–not just for the paper, but the land that Harrah now owns.
Harrah is someone who celebrates feel-good nothingness and loathes investigative reporting, probably because he was once the landlord to both this paper and the Voice of OC, two media outlets that delighted in pointing out his pomposity. To allow Harrah his own newspaper is the worst thing that can happen to Orange County–he'll make "Papa" Doug Manchester (the former owner of the San Diego Union-Tribune, who bought the paper just to push his favored development projects) seem as much of a serious newsman as former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee.
"We had a bad-enough run with [former owner Aaron Kushner], but imagine having Mike Harrah as our boss," fretted a Register veteran, who requested anonymity. "Nothing but blowjob pieces about his properties and pals."
Manchester, by the way, ended up selling the Union-Tribune this May to the Tribune Co. (owners of the Times) after just three years as owner, though he kept the daily's real estate. The Tribune Co. has also expressed interest in buying the Register. Will Harrah blast yet another opponent out of his way? The Reg newsroom–and all of OC, for that matter–certainly hopes not.