Port Rejects King’s Name on S.D. Center

Times Staff Writer

An 18-month effort to rename the city’s bayfront convention center for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ended Tuesday when the San Diego Unified Port District commissioners rejected the City Council’s request to do so.

In an anti-climactic, 4-3 decision, Commissioners Daniel Larsen, Raymond Burk, Milford Portwood and Robert Penner voted to support Burk’s motion to retain the name San Diego Convention Center, established in a 1985 contract between the city and the Port District. Commissioners Louis Wolfsheimer, William Rick and Delton Reopelle, who supported the council-backed name of San Diego Martin Luther King Convention Center, voted against the proposal.

The decision was the second repudiation of a San Diego tribute to the slain civil rights leader in less than two years. In a referendum in November, 1987, voters reversed a council decision to rename Market Street as Martin Luther King Jr. Way, reinstating the downtown thoroughfare’s original name.

Leaders of the drive to honor King vowed to pursue the racially and politically sensitive issue, which has divided the city and dogged public officials since the City Council’s decision in April, 1986, to rename Market Street.


Search Is Not Over

Wes Pratt, the lone black on the council and a leader of the King tribute effort, said the city still must find a suitable memorial to King and promised to press for renewed council action.

“San Diego has to come to grips with its ethnic diversity at some point in time,” Pratt said after the commissioners’ vote, held at a special meeting in the Holiday Inn Embarcadero ballroom.

But a weary-sounding Mayor Maureen O’Connor said it was too soon to decide whether to place the issue before the council again.


“At this point, I’m not prepared to say which way we’d go,” O’Connor said in an interview. “I mean, really, we’ve tried this every which way, and we seem to be running into a dead end.

“At this point, it appears to be difficult to find a solution that would satisfy a majority,” O’Connor added.

The Rev. George Stevens, who has led an unsuccessful boycott of the convention center since the port commissioners dodged the name issue in February, will hold a public meeting Thursday night to discuss the King tribute campaign.

Pratt, however, said a boycott clearly will not work. The $160-million bayfront facility, scheduled to open in November, has conventions scheduled through the end of the 1990s.


Jim Jacobson, a coordinator of the Martin Luther King Tribute Coalition, said members of the group also will meet to review options. Lacking the money for an initiative campaign, he called for the council to put the matter on the ballot.

O’Connor virtually ruled out that tactic, saying a victory in such a referendum would not be binding on the commissioners.

Other Efforts Lagging

In the meantime, a privately backed effort to build a statue or other King memorial in Balboa Park and establish a scholarship fund in his name also is languishing. William Nelson, chairman of the 18-month-old Martin Luther King Memorial Committee, said his group has raised $150,000 of the $750,000 it needs.


“I would say it’s stalled,” said David Twomey, assistant director of the city’s Park and Recreation Department.

City Council renewed the King tribute controversy two months after the Market Street referendum by appointing a 21-member committee to suggest an alternative memorial to King, who was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968.

After holding hearings throughout the city, that panel selected the convention center. The council backed the choice in a 7-2 vote Jan. 11, but the Port District skirted the issue in a Feb. 21 vote. By an identical 4-3 vote, commissioners instead suggested making King the first inductee in an “avenue of honors” that would be established on the center’s terrace.

The question remained in limbo for two months until Wolfsheimer, Port District chairman, acceded to an April 25 request from O’Connor that the commissioners take a stand on renaming the convention center. The council has not addressed the “avenue of honors” proposal.


Larsen, whose vote contradicted his Jan. 17 public promise to support the King tribute, was the only commissioner to speak on the matter Tuesday.

Claiming that “this is a matter of pride that San Diegans have in their city,” he said, “I am convinced after all this testimony that the vast majority in the community wants to retain the name ‘San Diego Convention Center.’ ” The remark brought cries of “Prove it!” from King supporters in the crowd of about 200 at the hotel.

‘Avalanche of Letters’

In an interview after the vote, Larsen said he made the Jan. 17 commitment at a council meeting “before the two public hearings we had, before the avalanche of letters and calls and communications from the community” in favor of retaining the generic name.


With all seven commissioners having stated their positions publicly during the past several months, the atmosphere at Tuesday’s meeting was more subdued than the emotional Feb. 21 hearing.

Pratt asked the commissioners to remember King’s ideals by honoring him with the name change.

“Situations like these attest to our inability, our lack of desire to deal with the question of race relations in a pluralistic city,” he said. “Our refusal allows the baser side of ourselves to hold on to prejudice, bias, racism, insensitivity, and to vent it when it’s publicly perceived appropriate to do so.”

But opponents of the name change continued to stress that the convention center name is a crucial selling point in convention marketing efforts.


“The issue is, and rightfully should be, the economics of the San Diego Convention Center and its impact on this community, the jobs to be provided and the name recognition,” said Robert Pruett, leader of the main opposition group. “We are selling San Diego and creating a greater economic base by which all San Diegans will benefit. Those who have booked conventions have booked the San Diego Convention Center.”