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Anatomy of a City Without Angels

With Arco sale and Times Mirror merger in the works, L.A. will lose its most visible corporate philanthropists.

March 22, 2000|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Los Angeles' libraries and theaters, hospitals and museums, shelters and clinics, the inevitable donor walls differ in size and style and content, but most of them have at least two things in common--the names Arco and Times Mirror. For decades, these two corporate foundations stood as symbols of the business sector's commitment to creating a world-class city, a vital downtown.

This year, as Arco and Times Mirror are expected to be swallowed by BP Amoco and Tribune Co., respectively, downtown Los Angeles will lose not only its two remaining Fortune 500 companies, but also its two most visible corporate philanthropists. Private foundations, which are booming in California, have the resources to replace any lost dollars, but many in the philanthropic community still consider the changes a devastating loss for the charitable landscape.

The Times' philanthropic participation predates the 1962 creation of its foundation--the account of how Dorothy Chandler almost single-handedly saved the Hollywood Bowl and bridged the infamous downtown-Westside culture gap to build the Music Center has become local legend. In 1984, Times Mirror helped bankroll the wildly successful Olympics and, more recently, came to the aid of the stalled Disney Concert Hall.

Arco's former President Lodwrick Cook enjoys a similar reputation. In 1986, he and then-president Robert Anderson rescued the burned-out Central Library with the Save the Books program. Six years later, after the 1992 riots, Cook became chairman of Rebuild L.A. and helped resurrect many small businesses.

In between such Herculean tasks, the two foundations annually doled out millions to local programs and organizations too numerous and disparate to name or categorize. Last year alone the two gave out a combined total of about $18 million.

The assurances from both prospective new owners have been vehement and oft-repeated--as early as November of last year, BP Amoco pledged to make $100 million in charitable contributions over 10 years in California, and Tribune officials have pledged to honor The Times' heritage of generosity, pointing out that their own foundations gave $5 million to groups in the Los Angeles area last year.

At the Times Mirror Foundation, staff members are in the midst of compiling an analysis of the foundation's giving profile in the hopes of ensuring that the programs now funded are fairly represented when the Tribune takes over.

"There will definitely be something, some sort of foundation associated with The Times," says Michelle Williams, executive director of the foundation. "It probably won't be named Times Mirror Foundation, and a lot more needs to be worked out, but bottom line, Los Angeles will continue to get money."

Many within the giving community, however, remain unconvinced. Unconvinced, and a bit shellshocked. Three days after the Times Mirror sale was announced, Jack Shakely, president of the California Community Foundation, blistered the pages of this newspaper's Opinion section, claiming that Los Angeles is in the throes of "philanthropic-death-by-merger." Citing the loss of various giants, including Getty Oil, Security Pacific National Bank and Bullock's, Shakely wrote that no matter what the intentions of a new long-distance owner, "geography is our enemy."

His feelings are shared by many.

The loss of Arco and Times Mirror "affects the landscape very dramatically," says Barry Munitz, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. "Both have been very key players. Yes, things have been changing--management is much more transient, you don't have the entrepreneurial owners that you did 10 years ago, but still the loss makes a huge difference."

"The bottom line is that corporations give most where they are located," says Lon Burns, a consultant for nonprofits and the former president of the Southern California Assn. of Philanthropy. "You have to assume that when a funder that size leaves, some programs will die."

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Overall, the loss may be as much symbolic as financial. Corporate giving makes up a very small percentage of nonprofit funding and has, despite the last few years of merger mania, increased during the last decade. In California, the recent explosion of wealthy private foundations has sent the philanthropic payout soaring to more than $2 billion annually. Locally, the relatively recent high-volume participation by the California Wellness Foundation, the California Endowment and the thriving California Community Foundation would more than compensate, in sheer dollars anyway, for the $12 million given out by Arco and the $6 million by Times Mirror in 1999.

"Obviously mergers and acquisitions are affecting many cities," says Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. "And certain groups that have become dependent will have to acquire the skills to seek funding elsewhere. But given the economy and the emergence of so many new sources, there probably won't be a net-loss problem."

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