Friday, January 19, 2007

Mayor, Marty praise Barclays, but where's the money going?

The Forest City Ratner/Nets/Barclays press event yesterday was held not at center court but in another court—the elegant Beaux-Arts Court of the Brooklyn Museum, a favored location for weddings. The two companies (plus team officials) had come to announce their alliance, in which the British banking company will pay handsomely to turn the planned arena for the Brooklyn Nets into the Barclays Center.

As reporters and a wide array of guests ate catered filet mignon and sea bass, public officials, business executives, and sports figures were there to applaud, surrounded by some nostalgic (to use Amanda Burden's term for project opponents) Brooklyn iconography (right).

There were few details beyond the news that had already leaked out over two days. “Over the next 20 years, they will be putting more than $300 million into Brooklyn,” declared Mayor Mike Bloomberg, citing the deal for naming rights as well as other sponsorship. (On Wednesday, the Times reported that the deal would be nearly $400 million, and the AP yesterday confirmed that.)

Bloomberg and other officials sat through some rapturous speeches and a snazzy promotional video featuring famous buildings from Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim to the Eiffel Tower, but they didn’t answer too many questions.

The mayor didn’t have to explain what he meant about the $300 million "into Brooklyn," when the money would go to defray the developer's cost of paying for the $637.2 million arena, not go into the public coffers. (Bloomberg also erroneously claimed that the site “would have been home for the Dodgers.")

“Every time Atlantic Yards takes a step closer to becoming a reality, it’s a good thing for New York City and Brooklyn,” declared Borough President Marty Markowitz, who ended effusively, “Barclays Center in Brooklyn, how sweet it is!”

Done deal?

In the brief Q&A afterward, Bloomberg was asked if the project—which faces three lawsuits and likely a fourth—was a done deal. “We don’t have a future if this isn’t done,” Bloomberg said, more dismissive than ominous. (Outside, Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn held a sign alluding to the pending eminent domain case: Barclays/Ratner naming rights? $400 million. Our constitutional rights? Priceless.)

Barclays' past

Does Bloomberg have any concerns about Barclays, a company--not unlike some others--with some serious skeletons in its closet: an association with the slave trade and support for apartheid? (This was pointed out by some of the dozen sign-carrying protesters, Fans for Fair Play, and Council Member Letitia James.) “No concerns that I have,” Bloomberg responded, using the answer as an opportunity to point to “the faces of the kids” who’d be inspired by Brooklyn basketball.

(The New York Times today offered this odd quote: A company spokesman said Barclays had not been involved in slavery. How about checking?)
[See 2/3/07 update.]

Ariella Cohen of the Brooklyn Paper, which published a tough article and editorial on the issue, directed a similar question to Bob Diamond, president of Barclays PLC.

Bloomberg jumped in to answer. “Barclays is as good a sponsor as we could have,” he declared. (Diamond, an American from Massachusetts, was the only Barclays representative to speak, thus depriving the electronic media of the contrast between a plummy British accent and an earthier Brooklyn one.)

Commented Bergen record columnist Ian O'Connor:
If Ratner cared to reveal himself as a true philanthropist with Brooklyn's best interests at heart, he would have named this arena after Jackie Robinson and told Barclays to keep its cash.

Blocked from Bruce

Forest City Ratner CEO Bruce Ratner (below right), in his remarks, touted “a brand new community designed by my friend, Frank Gehry.” Barclays, he said, had “voted to create jobs, much-needed housing… opportunity, and hope.” (Who voted?)

After the formal presentation and brief press conference, Ratner answered a few questions in front of a cluster of reporters. Standing nearby was Jim Stuckey, president of FCR’s Atlantic Yards Development Group. He told me he wasn't answering questions. (He did so later on WFAN, however.)

I went over to the group around Ratner, but his aides soon called an end to the press availability. I stepped forward and introduced myself to Ratner—our first handshake—and said I had a question.

Aide Scott Cantone, his back to me, set a pick to separate me from his boss. Ratner moved around the pick. I tried to go left. Blindsiding me was Ratner aide Tom Tuffey (ex-NYPD), who pushed a shoulder in my chest with calibrated force. Call it a foul, but not a flagrant one. Ratner found the lane and continued on. Stymied, I shouldered Tuffey back playfully--maybe a double foul.

(I'd met Tuffey twice before, first when he physically blocked me from entering the 5/11/06 press conference--I didn't mention that in my earlier account. Our second meeting was more cordial and low-key. He's just doing his job, but I wonder whether FCR would put a body on, say, a diminutive female reporter.)

A little later, I went up to FCR spokesman Joe DePlasco and told him my question. My calculation, I said, was that the naming rights agreement would pay for nearly half the arena construction, so I wanted to know the developer’s take on that. “No comment,” he replied.

Barclays and Brooklyn

Diamond, during the ceremony, said he hoped the Barclays Center “becomes the cultural and sporting heart of this borough.” The video described it as a “center for commerce, arts, and entertainment.” Despite the presence of representatives of BUILD, ACORN, and other Community Benefits Agreement signatories, there was no mention of the arena’s role in “community” events, a recent promotional point.

Diamond said the bank has a “reputation for corporate responsibility” and cited the plans for a Nets-Barclays Sports Alliance, which would sponsor amateur athletics and clinics, and repair and renovate basketball courts and other sports facilities in the borough.

How much would they company spend? He wouldn’t say. (The Post reported a figure of $2.5 million.)

All about character

Nets president Brett Yormark, a marketing whiz, championed Barclays, the Nets, and Forest City Ratner and praised the staffer who cold-called the bank. “We are all about character, passion, forward-thinking, and innovation,” he said.

The protesters outside questioned the issue of character, with a sign created by Patti and Schellie Hagan of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition pointing to the past wife-beating charges against star Nets point guard, who recently filed for divorce. Both Kidd and star shooting guard Vince Carter were on the dais, though the team is reportedly considering trading both.

Does Kidd expect to play in the arena in 2009? “I hope so,” he told reporters.

NBA expansion

National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern declared that the deal represented the global reach of basketball and “being a leader in social responsibility.”

All the guests on the dais, from Barclays executives to Stern to Nets part-owner Shawn (Jay-Z) Carter, sat at chairs draped with jerseys bearing the hopeful number 09, a reference to the planned 2009 opening of the arena.

The promos

The room was set up with video screens offering slogans and photos aimed to bridge the gap between Brooklyn and Britain. The materials were reproduced in a handbook.

The slogan “Brooklyn gave the world inspiration” precedes a photo of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The slogan “Brooklyn gave the world opportunity” precedes a photo of baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson.

The slogan “Brooklyn gave the world dreams” precedes a photo of Ebbets Field, home of the baseball Dodgers, who left in 1957.

The slogan “Brooklyn gave the world flavor” precedes a photo of the original Nathan’s hot dog emporium at Coney Island.

The slogan “Brooklyn gave the world memories” [corrected] precedes a photo of 1940s-era crowds on the Coney Island beach.

The money quote: “It’s time the world gave something back to Brooklyn.”

The Barclays Center, the promo declares, “signals a rebirth for Brooklyn itself.” The final line: “We are a partner in Brooklyn’s renaissance.” (If Brooklyn is already one of the world's top tourism destinations, then maybe the world's already been giving back.)

Accompanying that "renaissance" statement is a rendering of Miss Brooklyn and another tower, with the Williamsburgh Savings Bank--though significantly smaller in bulk than Miss B--dwarfing them in the foreground. (Interestingly, that rendering is a less tilty version of one (right) on the Atlantic Yards web site.)

Upon departure, those at the press conference got some swag—a blue backpack emblazoned “Barclays,” containing a blue Barclays windbreaker and a NBA basketball with both the Barclays and Nets logos (and autographed by a Net).

Pols in attendance

Event MC Mark Jackson, YES Network analyst and a graduate of Brooklyn’s Bishop Loughlin High School, called attention to several politicians in the audience: Assemblymembers Nick Perry and Joe Lentol; Council Member Lew Fidler; and an aide to Rep. Ed Towns.

He also cited Avi Schick, Downstate Chief Operating Officer of the Empire State Development Corporation, the state agency that still must shepherd the project and lead the defense against the lawsuits.

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