If you scanned the guest list of that mysterious retreat in Shepherdstown, your eyes might have flitted right over Roland Betts, chairman of Chelsea Piers Management, Inc. So let me give you a little background information.
Chelsea Piers could quickly be described as a developer of "sports and entertainment" facilities. At the company's 30-acre wharf-side operation on the west side of Manhattan you'll find a range of pay-to-play sports facilities, including ice skating rinks, a driving range, even a lacrosse field. The attraction, by the way, is one of the most-visited in New York City, with more than 4 million visitors annually.
How did Betts get a ticket to Shepherdstown?
Well, it seems that Betts, who also has a background as a film financier, was a frat brother of Dubya's, a partner in Bush's purchase of the Texas Rangers, and was a big donor to the prez' campaigns. He also was appointed to the National Park Foundation's board of directors in 2003.
While some describe Betts and Bush as best buds, some aren't so kind in describing the two.
Check out this snippet from Reconstruction Watch, which examined the "fair and effective use of New York City's Economic Development Resources" following 9-11:
Betts and his business partner Thomas Bernstein are part of President Bush’s inner coterie from Yale. According to Betts, “[t]he conventional wisdom on George is that the turning point of his life was giving up drinking. I don’t believe that. The turning point in his life was buying the Texas Rangers, being successful with the Texas Rangers.” When the partners sold the team in 1998, Bush received $15 million.
A September 24, 2000 article in The New York Times points out that the Rangers investment was immensely profitable in part because Betts and his partners “charmed and bullied the city of Arlington into giving them a great deal, with the local taxpayers paying more than $135 million to help build the Rangers a stadium.” Key to that deal was the 1991 passage of a sales tax referendum by the voters of Arlington; Bush, as team president, played the most public role advocating for the referendum.
According to the White House for Sale web site, the Chelsea Piers development was criticized for extensive corporate welfare (including deferred rent and taxes), cost overruns, secrecy and a lack of public participation and open space.
For some more insight into Mr. Betts, a self-described "liberal Democrat," read this New York Times article.
So why should any of this be a concern for the parks? Perhaps because Mr. Betts' inclusion on the guest list, along with that of Disney and the Coleman Co., represents the Interior Department's welcomed intrusion of big business -- for-profit businesses -- into the management of the park system.
Granted, big business long has had some influence on the national parks. Just look at what John D. Rockefeller, Jr., did for the parks. His giving benefited Grand Teton, Acadia, Yosemite, and Shenandoah. In doing so, he seemed sincerely concerned about preserving lands for the public good, not for his pocketbook. In fact, he threated to sell 32,000 acres he acquired to add to the acreage that later would become Grand Teton if the government would not take it to keep the lands in public ownership.
So it'll definitely be interesting to see how the guests at last week's retreat mold the centennial initiative and whether they see the initiative as a way to boost their own revenues or contribute to the public good.