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Screams of the Dog Whisperer

Are there no tidy endings?


THE REAL McCAW: This being America, we’ve all become addicted to neat and tidy endings, ideally scrunched into a 30-minute format. This being Santa Barbara-where our civic melodramas have no beginning, no end, and only sprawling middles that yawn on forever-we can forget it.

Angry Poodle Barbecue

I say this in connection with two of the more glaring meltdowns currently afflicting our community: the series of gaping holes masquerading as construction sites at the bottom of State Street otherwise known as La Entrada de Santa Nada and, of course, the Santa Barbara News-Press. Curiously, these two extravagant misadventures of nihilistic whimsy may actually collide. And in their collision, the rest of us might experience the satisfying sense of resolution we seem desperately to crave. But then again, maybe not.

The saga of the News-Press, brought to us by owner Wendy P. McCaw, seems stranded between lawsuits. The National Labor Relations Board recently concluded its five-week trial against the News-Press for a host of labor law violations, but we’re months away from ever seeing the judge’s ruling and years away from any final agreement.

In the meantime, Wendy P. and her attorneys are subpoenaing anyone and everyone who ever spoke to Jerry Roberts, her nemesis and former c editor in chief, in preparation for their $25 million arbitration battle royale. And later this October, a federal judge in Los Angeles will hear a significant procedural motion in the News-Press lawsuit against The Independent. For one newspaper to sue another newspaper is hardly unprecedented. But for one newspaper to go to court to demand that a reporter from another newspaper reveal his or her confidential sources, well, that’s beyond weird. Reporters who have followed McCaw’s machinations are frequently asked, “How will this end?” More to the point, the question has shifted to, “When will this ever end?”

One possible scenario bandied about by the local wag-wah-zee suggests McCaw and her hard-charging, $650-an-hour attorney A. Barry Cappello will wind up in court over his legal bills, where the immovable object would sue the irresistible force into mutual smithereens. While the appeal of this scenario is obvious, it’s just that-too obvious, too pat, too tidy. The other end-game scenario (replete with Shakespearean overtones) focuses on the recent arrival to town of McCaw’s ex-husband Craig McCaw. It was Craig McCaw who created the Nextel cellular empire; it was Craig McCaw who amassed the great pile of loot. And it was Craig McCaw whom Wendy divorced back in the early ‘90s en route to becoming one of America’s wealthiest women.

Now that Craig has happily remarried and has a family, one has to wonder why he would move-if only a few months out of the year-to the very town his ex-wife has so polluted? And why would he subject his new wife and kids to all this? Everywhere the new McCaws go, they will confront Wendy’s vast legacy of unhappiness. Sure, Santa Barbara is special and magical, but for gazillionaires like McCaw, there’s no shortage of beautiful, magical towns. Why didn’t he move to one of them? The party line holds that Wendy and Craig now get along. In fact, they’ve managed to cooperate on a few business ventures. But given the bitterness of their divorce battle, where Wendy waged an effective scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners campaign, one has to wonder if there’s a darker, subliminal psychological dimension to Craig’s decision to adopt Santa Barbara as his home away from home.

Under Wendy’s firm hand, the News-Press has been a business failure, a political failure, a social failure, and a journalistic disaster. In her own mind, Wendy might be the second coming of Joan of Arc. But the rest of the world sees a bitter, spiteful woman, all too eager to impose her unhappiness on anyone who crosses her. Whatever pressures Wendy might be feeling can only be exacerbated by the presence of her apparently happy and successful ex. And Craig will hardly be content to sit back and enjoy Santa Barbara’s sweet views. He already bought a big chunk of coastal property right next to the Bacara, and is threatening to make nice with the environmental constabulary in a way his ex-wife never could. Word on the street is he’s trolling to buy up big chunks of downtown Santa Barbara real estate, too. He’s especially interested in some of the vast real estate holdings owned by the Castagnola family down in Santa Barbara’s so-called Funk Zone between the railroad tracks and the waterfront.

The disposition and development of those properties has been the subject of considerable disagreement among the Castagnola clan. But it appears those differences of opinion may soon be resolved. As the Pacific Coast Business Times noted in a recent article, if those properties come into serious play, the proposed Ritz-Carlton timeshare condos that may one day be unleashed on the world-thanks to the now bankrupt Bill Levy-will be a drop in the bucket. Although there are many restrictions on what can and cannot be developed down there, it’s hard to imagine how any City Council could long resist the vast infusions of cash promised by transforming Santa Barbara’s waterfront into Monaco-by-the-Pacific.

In this scenario, there are whispers that Craig might become an investor in La Entrada, providing the necessary capital to usher this project from the drawing boards to fruition. The current owners-Bill Levy’s former bank-are clearly playing for time, doing the absolute minimum of construction necessary to keep their permits alive. The real deal is that La Entrada will be so expensive to build that it’s almost impossible to justify the cost of construction. And given that no final plans have been approved for the Californian Hotel-part of the project-nobody knows for sure just how expensive construction will really be. Any investor foolhardy enough to step into this mess is getting a pig-in-a-poke or, more likely, poked by a pig. But for someone with deep pockets like Craig McCaw, it might be worth it. If he could get his hands on some of the Castagnola properties, they would be immensely more valuable if La Entrada were up and operating. Given the hostility the News-Press has demonstrated toward La Entrada thus far, I’m betting this development will precipitate a rematch of McCaw vs. McCaw. That’s if Wendy doesn’t implode first.

Like I say, all this is speculation of the rankest order. Only on TV do we see actual resolution. In Santa Barbara, things just drag on forever.

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