|By Carol Park, The Business Press, San Bernardino, Calif.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Dec. 13, 2004 - A colorful career including managing a major league baseball team, prepared Dick Walsh for his final job before retirement as the executive director of the Ontario Convention Center.
When Walsh returned from service in the Army during World War II in 1948, he tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Walsh, 79, had been an all-city third baseman at Los Angeles High School. He enlisted in 1943.
"When I came back from the war, I couldn't run well any more. So when I tried out they told me about my shortcomings," Walsh said. "But the guy who met me for the tryouts offered me a job in the front office. That's how I wound up as a gopher for the Fort Worth Cats, a minor league farm club of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
"I did everything. I did paperwork, mowed fields and sold concessions and tickets. It was a great learning experience."
Walsh worked his way up to assistant minor league director in 1951. For six years, Walsh learned baseball operations.
When the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1957, Walsh moved with them as assistant general manager responsible for stadium alterations and operations at the new Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine.
Walsh remained with the Dodgers until 1966, when he became commissioner of the North American Soccer League, a Division 1 professional league in the United States.
Gene Autry and his California Angels came calling in November 1968. Walsh remained executive vice president and general manager with the Angels until he was fired in 1971.
" "I knew when I first took the job, I was being hired to be fired."
After the Angels fired Walsh, he attended California State University, Fullerton and Western State School of Law. Walsh earned a master's degree in public administration and a law degree in 1976 and 1984, respectively. While enrolled at CSU Fullerton, Walsh answered an ad for a general manager's position at the Los Angeles Convention Center. "I wound up with a job with them in 1974," Walsh said.
Walsh called on every skill he learned with the Dodgers and the Angels to run the 867,000 square-foot Los Angeles Convention Center.
"Running a convention center is much like running a stadium or an arena," Walsh said. "Instead of dealing with ballplayers and their agents, you're dealing with clients who are bringing in conventions. But you still have the same problems; the exiting, the toilets, the parking and the feeding are similar at both venues."
Walsh stayed with the Los Angeles convention center for 24 years. He managed the center when it was used as an Olympics event site during the1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics.
But Walsh got into a disagreement with Los Angeles city officials over where the Staples Center should be constructed in 1997.
Walsh did not want the city to build the Staples Center where a convention center exhibit hall stood. Instead, Walsh wanted Staples to be across the street so there would be fewer traffic and logistic complications.
"But the powers that be in Los Angeles did not see it that way," Walsh said. Staples Center opened in 1999.
Walsh left the Los Angeles Convention Center in January 1998.
SMG, a convention center operator, hired Walsh in October 1997 to open the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu. He was its general manager until SMG moved him to Alaska in 1999.
SMG, owned jointly by Hyatt Hotel Co. and Aramark, operates 170 arenas, including the Forum in Los Angeles and the former Astrodome, now known as Reliant Park, in Houston.
Walsh was in Fairbanks, Alaska for three years as SMG's senior general manager overseeing operations of five entertainment venues that included ice rinks and a convention center.
After nearly two years in Alaska, Walsh retired with his wife Roberta.
Walsh returned to Fullerton, where he kept a home he bought while working for the Angels, because his wife wanted to be closer to their three children.
Walsh was 74.
"But I wasn't ready to retire when I came back from Alaska," Walsh said. "Did I miss working? Well, I missed doing something. I've never done nothing. I've always worked."
So when SMG called again , he was ready.
"I got a call from SMG and they said they were having a little problem in Ontario," Walsh said.
"They asked me to come and help them out for a couple of months. I said okay; that was in August of 2002."
"The biggest challenge with the Ontario Convention Center is bringing in events and business to the city," Walsh sad. "It's difficult because of the tremendous competition from other convention centers."
Other destinations, like San Francisco and Los Angeles, have a greater draw than Ontario, he said.
So Walsh works with hotels and potential clients on pricing to draw them to the center. So far, the center is doing well. The center has not lost a piece of business over a dollar since Walsh took over, he claims.
"A convention center is a loss leader for a city. The name of the game is 'heads on beds.' The goal of the convention center is to bring in business from out of town" to generate sales and transient occupancy taxes for the city and economic impact for local businesses, Walsh said.
Ontario's convention center attracts fewer national conventions than those in Los Angeles and Hawaii. The client base is smaller and more local.
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