A Tale of Two Billionaires: Contrasting Warren Hellman and Larry Ellison

With the notable exception of the movie Deliverance, the banjo has a benevolent place in American society. It's a happy instrument that makes a happy sound and, it would seem, is plucked by happy people. You don't hear so much about tormented banjo players.

So, the notion of a banjo-playing billionaire was an incongruous one. But it's one that suited San Francisco — and its banjo-playing billionaire. They really did make beautiful music together.

In a way, they still do.

Whether or not you love bluegrass — or waiting hours to catch a bus free of inebriated bluegrass aficionados and their effluvia — it's easy to love the concept of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, which drew damn near 1 million people to Golden Gate Park this month.

World-class musicians take center stage in a world-class event drawing fans from — you guessed it — all over the world. Tourist dollars seep into San Francisco's coffers. Banjos are played. It's all family-friendly and free in a city that is increasingly neither. And the whole thing is underwritten by Warren Hellman, the late banjo-playing billionaire.

Hardly Strictly was hardly the only world-class event drawing a million devotees — and, ostensibly, their spending-money — to San Francisco this year. There was also the local iteration of the America's Cup, that brainchild of yachting billionaire Larry Ellison.

That one wasn't as happy for San Francisco. There were, after all, fewer banjos involved.

Like New Zealand's yacht, drawing parallels between the two events starts out strikingly well — then flags. You've got a pair of billionaires, each sporting a healthy ego, each molding the city into the epicenter of his respective pet obsession, and each drawing throngs of fans in an ostensible boon.

And then it all diverges.

Far from lavishly picking up the tab for his party, Team Ellison sold San Francisco on funding the America's Cup with magical economic forecasts now denounced by even the economists employed to create them. He attempted to extract huge swaths of the waterfront from an alarmingly pliant city, jerked around San Francisco politicos by threatening to take the Cup to Rhode Island, and, finally, likely left the city millions in the hole following absurd fundraising efforts by hapless officials passing the hat to offset the costs of a billionaire's yacht regatta. Had Team Ellison not unilaterally pulled out of a $136 million waterfront development deal, the city would now be in hock to his heirs for up to 101 years.

You didn't have to worry about paltry fundraising or 22nd-century debt with Hardly Strictly. Hellman simply paid for it all — and continues to do so, even from beyond the grave.

San Francisco's current crop of oligarchs have a more transactional way of doing philanthropy. A number of them, admirably, bestow millions upon the city, its playgrounds, and other things we care about. But this is hardly strictly altruism. These are the undertakings of "good corporate citizens" with their own business agendas — who are seasoning the deals emanating from this city's bubbling political cauldron.

Hellman, who died in 2011, was transactional, too. But that transaction was keyed by his deep and intrinsic joy in doing good for this city as an end in and of itself. This is something power-brokers hoping to anoint themselves "the next Warren Hellman" just don't seem to understand.

Hellman — a son of the city, a Lowell High graduate, a banjo-playing billionaire — was perhaps the last of a dying breed.

Warren Hellman was not a saint. A politically involved billionaire — and registered Republican — will butt heads with his share of San Franciscans. There are still those upset about his shoe-horning of a parking garage into Golden Gate Park. Or his funding of the Committee on Jobs. Or his bizarrely inconsistent position on city pensions. But even those who regularly lined up against Hellman politically didn't question his motives. He wanted what he felt was best for San Francisco — and not necessarily for himself. Politicos who crossed swords with Hellman recall that, if he pushed for something like business tax breaks, it was because he thought that San Francisco businesses would thrive if taxed less — not because he wanted a tax holiday. If he was doling money out to worthwhile causes, it's because he felt they were worthwhile — not because he desired increased access to City Hall Room 200.

And if he was commandeering the city and rendering it the public backdrop for his expensive hobby — he wasn't going to stick San Francisco with the bill.

A city long benefiting from sentimental, homegrown business titans finds itself in a strange place when those people cease to exist. Ellison made a mockery of the concept when he said he'd like to have the America's Cup in San Francisco again, as "I have a house here."

With fundraising efforts to offset the costs of hosting Ellison's boat race falling woefully short, Mayor Ed Lee stepped in and began asking for personal and political favors. Millions in "behested payments" were amassed this way — with much of the money hailing from entities that had pending business before the city. As we noted in a recent cover story, some $500,000 was donated to the America's Cup Organizing Committee in June by a company called Kilroy Realty. In August, the Planning Commission granted Kilroy's wish to add six stories to a skyscraper's approved plan at 350 Mission. This request — and the expediency with which it was allowed — was described to your humble narrator as "unprecedented" by Planning Department personnel and other development-watchers.

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Joe with all due respect, you need to review the facts surrounding the funding of HSBF. Contrary to popular thought, Warren Hellman does not pay for the Festival at least not for the past few years. Take a look at the San Francisco Parks Trust tax returns!

rmajora topcommenter

Hellman "shoehorned" that garage into Golden Gate Park? Recall that city voters passed Prop. J in 1998 authorizing the garage. 104,069 voted for the garage, and only 74,985 voted against it.

And Warren Hellman raised the $55 million in construction costs from private sources. It didn't cost the city anything. Once the construction bonds are paid off, all the parking fees will flow into the city's coffers forever.

mblaircheney topcommenter

SF Weekly will never concede it's position on putting down the America's Cup. So here is another swipe from a different perspective, with the same predictable outcome... Larry Ellison is a bad guy who took us for a ride. Methinks thou dust protest to much.

As a life long San Franciscon, went to my fair share of Rock & Roll concerts, free and not so free. Have had the pleasure of sailing on the bay as crew and skipper. Think I could have something to add to the discussion.

America's Cup was not just enjoyed by those who watched from the shore, but by millions world wide in HD video. The finest match ever in AC's history unfolded with our beautiful City as a backdrop. It was a privilege to host the event, and I don't give a damn what anyone else thinks... they are wrong, period. Could give a lengthy explanation why, but the naysayers wouldn't listen anyway.

On the other hand, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass did harken back to our Hippie past. Attended, saw it first hand and even remember when such things took place many moons ago in the shade of Haight Ashbury.

Half or more of the people there were drunk or stoned or in the process of getting more so. Aging love child's trying to relive their past, dressed for the part but now the conversations were not about peace and love, but internet deals, real estate prices and the like, all between tokes or swills of beer/wine/whiskey.

Music, when you could hear it, was fine, engineered one hour sets with plenty of plugs for the cd's for sale or future play dates.

Golden Gate park homeless were not happy, braced with pit bulls on short leaches. I personally witnessed  3 separate fights where they were key players, resulting in blood being spilt and arrests being made. Their turf was being invaded by swills showing off their finery, the anger was palatable. I have never seen such a thing at a San Francisco concert.

You get what you pay for... it was free. Thankfully what I witnessed was not broadcast to the world.

On the other hand. At America's Cup, no one... no one was openly drunk and I walked past thousands of fans. The conversation, in many languages, was all about the event and the history being played out before us. One of San Francisco's finest hours.

Stick that in your pipe and smoke it SF Weekly.

aliasetc topcommenter

Opinions are like assholes, everybody has one.

joe.eskenazi topcommenter

@mblaircheney Hey, I respect your point of view. But you're hardly in a position to call us out for intransigence! 



mblaircheney topcommenter

@joe.eskenazi @mblaircheney With all due respect, it's all about motives and intention.

intransigence with a closed mind and preset agenda goes together like a hand and glove... SF Weekly in this case... a boxing glove, swinging wildly even when the bell has rung and the world has submitted their card... all rounds America's Cup.

Australia, with a billionaire sponsor, has submitted the official challenge for the Cup. New Zealand is already raising money for the next event. More will follow.

joe.eskenazi topcommenter

@mblaircheney You continue to meld the events themselves with the processes used to foist them upon the city.

That is an oversight. 

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