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Future uncertain as hotel developer buys San Diego newspaper

November 18, 2011 |  8:23 am

The sale is not set to close until mid-December, but speculation has already begun about what hotel developer Douglas Manchester will do as the new owner of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The 69-year-old Manchester and his partner, ex-radio executive John Lynch, have promised to do good things with the 143-year-old newspaper, by some accounts the oldest continuously operating business in San Diego County.

Manchester has a history of thinking big -- some consider him a San Diego equivalent of Donald Trump.

Like Trump, his projects are bold and controversial. Speculation about his motives, finances and, of late, his private life are constant. And like the New Yorker, who likes to be called The Donald, Manchester has a preferred nickname: Papa Doug.

Unlike Trump, however, he disdains the limelight. Even though he has sought to shape the look and politics of San Diego, he rarely gives interviews.

In San Diego, Manchester is known as a developer of waterfront hotel properties that have complex financial underpinnings and controversial design features.

Last week, for example, the California Coastal Commission rejected Manchester's proposal to build hotels along the San Diego waterfront as part of a plan by the Navy to develop its property.

Among other criticisms was the concern that the hotel project would block waterfront views and turn the area into a private asset rather than a public one. The same criticism was heard from the commission when Manchester proposed a hotel in Oceanside, a project later scuttled.

Manchester, a conservative Republican, funded a drive in 1994 to get public backing to move the city's airport operations to Miramar Marine Corps Air Station. The public strongly rejected the idea.

And in 2008 Manchester donated $125,000 to the Proposition 8 campaign to ban gay marriage in California. His donation led to a boycott of his marquee hotel by gay-rights groups. Manchester explained that his opposition to same-sex marriages springs from his Catholic faith.

An immediate concern in San Diego is whether Manchester, known for never running from a political controversy, will use the newspaper to advance his financial interests or his disputes with governmental bodies such as the Coastal Commission.

"I think it will be difficult for him to separate his business interests from his interest in providing objective communication of news," said James Milch, one of the city’s top land-use lawyers for four decades.

George Mitrovich, president of the City Club of San Diego, the city's main public forum, called Manchester "easily one of the most controversial figures in recent San Diego history."

Still, Mitrovich said it is too early to tell whether Manchester "will be the second coming of Otis Chandler or William Randolph Hearst. Let's hope it's Chandler, not Hearst."

Dean Nelson, a journalism professor at Point Loma Nazarene University, said he is concerned about whether Manchester's aim is to sell the valuable property in Mission Valley, close the newspaper and turn the Union-Tribune into a Web-only news organization.

The newspaper offered one glimpse in Manchester's finances last year when it reported that court documents filed as part of a divorce case between Manchester and his wife, Betsy, indicated that his companies, as of 2008, had lost more than $190 million.

Terms of the sale by Beverly Hills-based Platinum Equity were not revealed in Thursday's announcement.

Speculation has already begun about what hotel developer Douglas Manchester will do as owner of the San Diego Union-Tribune

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Photo: The San Diego Union-Tribune building. Credit: K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune