Port Votes Today on Renaming Convention Center for King

Times Staff Writer

From heated radio talk shows to placid television editorials, from tense City Council sessions to solemn parades, the debate over whether San Diego's new $160-million bayfront convention center should be renamed for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has once again reached a critical point.

Today, the Board of Port Commissioners, which is paying to build the landmark edifice, is scheduled to vote on the name change, the first step in a two-part bureaucratic sequence that ends back at the City Council, which is responsible for operating the center when it opens later this year.

Under normal circumstances, that would be it, the two votes signifying an official conclusion. But these are far from normal circumstances.

Both supporters and opponents of the name change have vowed grass-roots referendum or initiative campaigns over any decision they disagree with, a prospect that puts the final outcome in doubt.

Extraordinary Divisiveness

What is clear, however, is that such a drawn-out political battle carries with it the potential for extraordinary community divisiveness, cutting along highly emotional--and, in the worst case, racial--lines.

It's a circumstance with which San Diego is all too familiar. Two years ago, voters overturned a council decision to rename Market Street for King, and the city has struggled to find a suitable civic tribute for the slain civil rights leader since.

Those in favor of the convention center change, led by Wes Pratt, the council's only black member, maintain that the center provides the best means for honoring King because it is new and will be highly visible both locally and nationally.

But those in opposition say the city has done enough for King, such as naming a park and an elementary school after him, and they note that he had no personal ties to the city.

The main opposition group, which, in its few public appearances has been all white and mostly senior citizens, says its motives are not racist.

In contrast, some leading black supporters contend that the issue can be defined in terms of race, and the city's black community is solidly behind the name change.

The rhetoric in the debate remains fervent judging from the many calls to radio talk shows and the abundance of letters written to newspapers.

Former Mayor Roger Hedgecock, host of the city's top-rated radio talk show, says the name change has been one of the hot topics of the new year, rivaled only by the proposed takeover of San Diego Gas & Electric Co. and discussions of the border.

"The SDG&E; takeover, that one kind of faded out . . . (but) this one has gotten more listener reaction and more listener emotion," Hedgecock said.

Louis Wolfsheimer, a veteran member and current chairman of the Board of Port Commissioners, said, "This is by far the most controversial issue in my nine years on the board, by a factor of 10."

Flood of Letters

Wolfsheimer, a lawyer, says his office has received many letters about the name change, and added that "every time I walk outside," someone seems to be there to offer an opinion. The letters have been running 75 to 1 against changing the building name from the San Diego Convention Center to the San Diego Martin Luther King Convention Center.

Wolfsheimer said each letter is different, leading him to assume they aren't part of an orchestrated campaign. Most have been signed and are without racist comments. "There aren't a lot of out-and-out nuts," he said.

Another veteran member of the port board, Bill Rick, said he too has received many letters, and "I've worn out several coat lapels," he joked, referring to people who have grabbed him to pass on their advice. Almost invariably, he said, the opinions have been against the name change.

But both Rick and Wolfsheimer said they intend to follow the Jan. 10 decision by the council to add King's name to the center. In doing so, they join two other commissioners, Dan Larsen and Delton Reopelle, who have said they also intend to vote for the change, thus accounting for a majority of the seven-member board.

The seven are appointed by the five cities surrounding the bay. Rick, Wolfsheimer and Larsen represent San Diego, and Reopelle represents National City, whose City Council also favors naming the center after King.

Raymond Burk of Coronado says he is against the change, Milford Portwood of

Imperial Beach has said he is leaning against it, and Robert Penner of Chula Vista has said he has not made up his mind.

Some commissioners, such as Reopelle, at first said they were leaning against the renaming, but later changed their minds when pressured by their city councils.

Up to the City

In explaining his position, Rick echoed the feelings of some of his colleagues:

"I say the city of San Diego has to operate the center. . . . They (council members) are the ones who get elected."

In anticipation of today's 2 p.m. meeting, the Port District has rented a ballroom at the Embarcadero Holiday Inn to accommodate an anticipated crowd of several hundred. It isn't the first time the district has done so. In the past, it has used hotel ballrooms for public hearings of high-profile issues such as airport noise and landing curfews at Lindbergh Field, as well as taxicab licensing.

Dan Wilkens, a Port District spokesman, said letters to the agency concerning the renaming have run into the thousands. As of early last week, the district had received about 1,700 signed letters, about 60% in favor of the name change.

By midweek, a coalition of groups supporting the renaming--consisting of the San Diego Unity League, Community Preparatory School and the Alliance of Survival--submitted 3,000 more letters to the district, and were urging supporters to attend today's meeting.

Aside from Councilman Pratt, another leader in the King renaming effort is the Rev. George Stevens, who is black and who says the debate has turned into "one of the most politicized issues in the city in a long time."

'A Very Serious Concern'

Stevens, who was on a committee appointed by the City Council to find a fitting memorial for King, said that while "there's no big coordinated effort" on the part of those favoring the renaming, "this is a very serious concern for many people."

He said he expects that word of today's meeting will be emphasized in the black community, through community newspapers and from the church pulpit.

If the name-change effort fails, because it is rejected by the Port District or by the City Council or is overturned by a referendum, Stevens has threatened to do two things: lead a national boycott of the center and lead an initiative effort in San Diego to keep the name.

"This time we're not backing down. . . . I'm not worried about (the opponents) at all," Stevens said.

Should port commissioners approve the change, the matter will go back to the City Council. That's because the council vote in January was on a resolution and not an ordinance, and the latter is necessary to make the name change legal, City Atty. John Witt said.

Renaming the center requires the approval of both the port commissioners and the council, and a referendum against either the city or the Port District would scuttle the change, according to the city clerk's office.

Procedural Differences

Allen Giesen, a spokesman for the main opposition group, which is called Citizens to Keep the Name San Diego Convention Center, said his organization has not yet decided whether to launch a referendum against the city or the Port District. There are procedural differences between the two because the district was created by the Legislature while the city is governed by the City Charter.

A referendum against the city would require collecting 25,593 signatures of registered voters within 30 days, while a similar drive against the Port District would require collecting a total of about 32,000 valid signatures in the five port cities of San Diego, National City, Chula Vista, Imperial Beach and Coronado.

"We don't want to take this mess to the other cities," Giesen said, adding that since there are fewer blacks living in the four cities outside San Diego, based on census data, it may be easier to obtain signatures in those areas. "We think the rest of the county doesn't really care about this. It has no special significance to them."

As for today's meeting, Giesen said he and the group's organizer, Robert Pruett, plan to present statements and the several thousand petition signatures.

But Giesen said he didn't know how many other opponents would also attend. He claimed that members of the group have been verbally abused and that death threats have been left on his and Pruett's answering machines.

"This has been painted as such a racially negative thing" that some of the group's supporters are hesitant to attend, Giesen said.

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