Friday, September 7, 2007

Warner Warning

The widely reported $120 margarita at the San Ysidro ranch got me thinking again about Ty Warner's effect on the quality of life in Santa Barbara. Walking by Ty Warner's various sea-front properties in Montecito last spring, I witnessed an army of laborers building, renovating, beautifying. Some might point out how many jobs "Ty" is creating, how much money he's pumping into the local economy (though I wonder how much of the reported hundreds of million actually stays in the local economy and how much goes to imported luxury items and materials). But to me, the significant fact is that so much capital and so much human labor, skilled and unskilled, lower class and lower middle class, is being devoted to the exclusive benefit of rich people.

Consider the local Warner properties, not including his multi-lot bluff-top estate, and not including the cost of actual purchase, only the renovation cost:

  • Biltmore Hotel, recently renovated for a cool $240 million (for 233 rooms). Rooms "start at $550" a night.
  • San Ysidro Ranch, recently renovated for $130 million (for 40 cottages and suites), plus an additional $25 million for the Stonehouse restaurant. Accommodations available for $800-$4,000 a night.
  • Coral Casino, currently completing a $35 million renovation. Enrollment fees more than $20,000, plus monthly and other fees.
  • Montecito Country Club, renovation plans in the works, with Jack Nicklaus designing the golf course. Membership, $10,000 plus fees.
  • Sandpiper Golf Course, $124-$144 for a round of golf.
  • Rancho San Marcos, currently a relative upper-middle-class bargain at $65-$85 for a round of golf, though changes are expected.
Apologists might point to the $1.5 million he donated to the Sea Center on Stearns Wharf or the $500,000 to renovate the path in front of his bluff-top estate. But I'm not impressed. He invests hundreds of millions of dollars, probably more than a billion dollars, in properties that benefit exclusively rich people and gives two local donations worth roughly.2% of his other local investments, just barely enough to get his highly visible name on a highly visible public building, plus, of course, the aesthetic satisfaction of beautifying the view from his estate (even changing the color of the Sea Center).

Ty Warner epitomizes the worst of contemporary capitalism. He makes a fortune selling frivolous beanie babies to kids and crazed collectors, then invests that fortune in luxurious playpens for the rich and super-rich. His idea of public spirit, his contribution to making the world a better place, begins with personal aesthetics and ends with public relations, little more than individual aggrandizement with an impoverished sense of larger purpose.
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