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|Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter|
But for all his lack of stage presence, this was Ed Roski's show. It was he, along with his partner, Denver rail tycoon Phil Anschutz, who had financed the arena project and carried it through protracted negotiations with the city. And even at that early date, Roski was moving to parlay his downtown stake into another, bigger deal - controlling partner of a new NFL franchise in Los Angeles, a billion-dollar brass ring that had for years eluded both the league and L.A.'s top deal makers.
Taken together, these sports-cum-real-estate ventures marked a breakthrough for the downtown political and business establishment, which had thrown millions of public and private dollars on development projects that had failed utterly to breathe new life into the trash-strewn streets. Now Roski was promising to make it all happen.
Yet for Roski personally, the public attention marked a sort of coming out, stepping into the light after a career in the shadows. If he seemed awkward at the star-studded ceremony, chalk it up to opening-night jitters. "I still see myself as real estate guy," Roski offered later to explain his lack of charisma. "Not as a public figure."
It is indeed a new posture, this public persona. Roski is a local boy - raised in Westchester, a USC grad, a resident of Toluca Lake - but until now he has remained virtually unknown outside the world of commercial real estate development, a low profile that belies his considerable clout. For the past 30 years, Roski has quietly built his Majestic Realty Corp. into the largest commercial real estate concern in Southern California, with a portfolio boasting 33 million square feet, a staff of 140, and annual gross revenues of $165 million. But he has remained better known in the backrooms of L.A.'s bare-knuckles Eastside than in the button-down boardrooms downtown.
It was there that Roski built his empire, in cities like Commerce, Industry and Chino - and it is a fortune rooted in the gritty, insider byways of Eastside development. Roski learned the ropes in the City of Industry, where his primary collaborator was sent to prison in one of the biggest public corruption scandals in recent memory. Since then, he has made a specialty of wringing lucrative concessions out of local governments, battling for competitive edge in the game of unfettered, helter-skelter development by lavishing political contributions, plying insider connections and, when all else failed, bullying rivals and public agencies alike.
And while he's managed to keep it out of his standard public résumé, one of Roski's longtime business interests is gambling. He currently owns and operates a casino in Las Vegas - the sort of connection that can raise eyebrows among government regulators and sports executives.
No wonder, then, that Roski has stepped gingerly into the spotlight. He's patient but reserved in dealing with the press; even in his own New Coliseum News, a newsletter promoting his NFL bid, he conceded that speaking with reporters is "still not something I'm completely comfortable with." But in his budding partnership with Anschutz, and as the point man in deals with bona fide moguls like Rupert Murdoch, who recently acquired a sizable share of the arena project, Roski is forging ahead, learning to smile and serve up platitudes about "creating a sense of community."
For now, Ed Roski Jr. is on a roll. As the walls of the downtown arena go up, a design team is putting the finishing touches on plans for an adjacent shopping, hotel and entertainment complex. Last month Roski's design for a refurbished Memorial Coliseum -long dismissed by doubters as unworkable - won enthusiastic endorsement from NFL owners at league meetings in Kansas City. In downtown's depressed-development economy, Roski is being hailed as a savior, an angel who has gone where others feared to tread.
It is, perhaps, because of the desperation for private-sector leadership that the city hasn't taken too hard a look at its new partner. But somewhere along the line someone - at a pro-league office, in newsrooms around the city, perhaps even the public, if a bond issue makes it to the ballot - someone will start asking: Who is Ed Roski? What kind of businessman is it that L.A. is climbing into bed with?
William Bible, the longtime chairman of the Gaming Control Board in Las Vegas, put the question a different way. It was May 1994, and Roski was seeking a license for his Blue Diamond Hotel and Casino, a joint venture he formed with Boomtown, Inc., a gambling concern with interests in half a dozen states across the nation. Roski was no stranger to Nevada, having developed over a million square feet of property there in the previous five years, and he came to Bible's forum well-connected: Boomtown's senior vice president and corporate counsel was Robert List, a former governor of the state. Still, the ranks of licensed gaming operators in Las Vegas is a closed fraternity, and Bible likes to administer a hazing to all who enter.