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POWER PLAYERS: Shaping the Southland

AEG's chief is a force in L.A.

Tim Leiweke has driven vast changes in the texture of downtown L.A.'s cityscape.

February 07, 2010|By Cara Mia DiMassa

What Tim Leiweke thinks Los Angeles is -- and isn't -- doing for its future holds enormous weight. He maintains personal friendships with a number of politicians, including City Councilwoman Jan Perry, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. They make regular appearances at company events and have benefited from AEG's political machine, which has given more than $1.8 million to political candidates and causes over the last five years.

He and his company are among L.A.'s biggest boosters -- and its biggest beneficiaries.

All of which makes the tower, which Leiweke can see from the window of his office in the heart of L.A. Live, a symbol.

The meaning, however, is open to interpretation.

Arriving in L.A.

Tim Leiweke arrived in Los Angeles in 1996, hired by billionaire Philip Anschutz and real estate magnate Ed Roski Jr. (Though Leiweke is the public face of his company, he still answers to the reclusive Anschutz, who lives in Colorado.) Anschutz and Roski had recently purchased the L.A. Kings, and they wanted Leiweke to turn around the flailing organization and build an arena.

Leiweke, who had been working in professional sports since his early 20s, got on the phone and personally urged season ticket holders to renew subscriptions for the Kings' first year without star Wayne Gretzky. He offered them a full refund if they were dissatisfied. And as Roski and Anschutz narrowed down possible sites for their arena, eventually settling on a downtown parcel that included parking lots as well as the Convention Center North Hall, Leiweke lobbied City Council members, rallied the city's labor unions and pushed for public support.

Complex land deal

The result was one of the most complicated land deals that L.A. had ever seen, which gave the developer $58 million in city bonds and $12 million in redevelopment grants for what became Staples Center.

Rob Light, managing partner and head of music at Creative Artists Agency, met Leiweke when he went to look at architectural models of Staples Center, then in the planning phase. Leiweke, Light said, "struck me as the most confident man I'd ever met. He talked as if he was already putting the first hoe into the ground. It was going to get built. He was a force of nature."

Fernando Guerra, director of the Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, said Leiweke and Anschutz carefully targeted their pitch to developers and people in sports and entertainment.

"They were able to capture the different sectors, not because they integrated them, but because they sliced them up," said Guerra, who consulted for the company from 1998 to 2001. "They had different talking points for different sectors. Very few people can do that."

After the center was built, AEG sold land around the arena to hand-picked developers, who began building condo and retail projects. The area, known as South Park, is now one of downtown's most successful neighborhoods.

More than four years ago, when construction crews were about to turn the first shovel for L.A. Live, Leiweke likened his project to New York's Times Square, saying that the award shows, live broadcasts and fan fests planned for the site would help establish Los Angeles as the "event capital of the world."

AEG has managed to bring some high-profile events to the Nokia Theatre, including the Emmys and the "American Idol" finale. And people are going to the zone -- and, by extension, to downtown.

On a weekday afternoon, tourists and Angelenos alike circle the property. Weekend nights bring large crowds, drawn by a confluence of sporting events, musical acts at Nokia Theatre and several clubs on the property.

But the 30,000-square-foot Grammy Museum, an integral part of L.A. Live, has struggled to find an audience. (At a premiere of "Michael Jackson's This Is It," the film of the pop star's last rehearsals, ushers handed out free tickets to the museum.) Some buyers backed out of the tower's condos as the economy foundered, and hotel bookings have lagged behind projections.

That has meant that Leiweke has been rolling up his sleeves to sell the venue, giving tours of the hotel tower to pretty much anyone with an interest and using unusual methods to lure events to L.A. Live.

He enlisted celebrities Steve Carell and Ryan Seacrest to film videos supporting his effort to bring the National Hockey League draft to L.A. It worked.

The showmanship, said Leiweke, is necessary because L.A. is losing conventions and championship games to Las Vegas and other cities that invest civic funds to sell themselves.

"Every other city that we would be in, the city would come to us and say, 'Are you guys OK? Can we help you?' " Leiweke said. "I told the mayor, 'You are damn lucky it is us. Because if it were anyone else, they would be out of business.' "

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