Disney’s Lack of Corporate Presence

Charles Crumpley
Editor and Publisher of the San Fernando Valley Business Journal

There’s one big rule for column writers: Take a stand; don’t be squishy. This is a heads-up that I’m going to violate that rule. More about that in a minute.

The subject is the Walt Disney Co. You may have seen the Sept. 24 article in the Los Angeles Times – it was in the important Sunday centerpiece position – with a headline that says it all: “Is Disney paying its share in Anaheim?”

The article said that the city has given Disney a Matterhorn-like pile of good deals. For example, taxpayers shelled out more than $100 million to build Disney’s parking garage at the Disneyland complex. The city gets $1 a year and Disney keeps the parking revenue estimated to be at least $35 million a year. Add up all the similar deals and tax breaks, and the Times estimates Disney has gotten $1 billion worth of giveaways from the good people of Anaheim – a figure the company disputes.

This is where I can take a stand and say, “Aw, c’mon.” Of course Disney has gotten a lot from Anaheim, but surely it is worth it. After all, the city gets plenty of tax money from the other hotels and restaurants that are in town because of the Disneyland complex. And really. Has Disney acted any worse than a typical NFL team that expects local taxpayers to build it a new stadium regularly?

But something else came through in the article. That’s the apparent sense in Anaheim that, sure, Disney is a huge benefit for the city, but if you add it all up, Disney’s presence is a bit of a disappointment. The invisible balancing scale seems tilted in favor of Disney.

Now I can’t judge whether Anaheim’s gotten a good deal or not. I feel more comfortable considering Disney’s presence in the area 40 miles northeast of Disneyland: the San Fernando Valley, where Disney is headquartered. On the one hand, I think reasonable residents agree that Disney is a great company and we’re proud and happy that it is here. But at the same time, I can’t help but feel its civic presence is lacking.

Disney is a great citizen in Burbank, its headquarters town, and that’s terrific. And Disney is a longstanding member of such important business groups as the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the Valley Industry and Commerce Association. The company does devote executive talent and money to the area.

But on the other hand, I’m hard pressed to come up with many big, local civic causes or important needs in recent years in which Disney has commanded a conspicuous leadership position. It is the biggest company in all of Los Angeles County, yet it’s hard to point to anything – an edifice, a civic program, a local park or attraction – and say “Look at that! Disney did that!” (The company did make a significant contribution to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, but the fund-raising campaign for the hall was started and largely backed by Disney family members.)

So this is where my opinion is squishy. On the one hand, it’s a great company with terrific products and it employs scads of people. I’m glad it is here. But on the other hand, I have to wonder: wouldn’t we have a better community if Disney were a truly robust local corporate leader?

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