ABC lists Irving-based Gold’s Gym alongside Chick-fil-A for political views

The recent Chick-fil-A controversy has sparked responses from both sides but also a closer evaluation of other companies’ views – and political contributions.

ABC News highlighted several companies that have given to anti-gay organizations and political foundations.

Gold’s Gym International CEO and President Robert Rowling donated more than $1 million to American Crossroads, an organization started by GOP political strategists including Karl Rove and a super PAC backing Mitt Romney.

Gold’s is a subsidiary of private Texas-based TRT Holdings, which also owns Omni Hotels. Omni is one of the few major hotel chains that doesn’t offer domestic partner benefits to its employees throughout the U.S.

Omni’s Dallas convention center hotel offered DP benefits after the issue was raised by Dallas Voice and Mayor Tom Leppert convinced the company to do so, even though it hadn’t been considered as part of the operating agreement between the city and the hotel.

Direct-sells company Amway is also under pressure from the gay community after LGBT activist Fred Karger obtained the company’s president’s tax records revealing that he’d donated $500,000 to the National Organization for Marriage Education Fund. Karger called for a boycott of Amway last Thursday.

—  Anna Waugh

From inside Dallas’ convention center hotel

Photos by John Wright/Dallas Voice

—  John Wright

Omni confirms DP benefits for convention hotel

ROOMS WITH VIEWS | Workers put the finishing touches on the pool deck this week at Dallas’ convention center hotel, as the downtown skyline looms behind them. The hotel is scheduled to open Nov. 11. (John Wright/Dallas Voice)

CLICK HERE TO VIEW MORE PHOTOS FROM INSIDE THE HOTEL

Facility owned by city of Dallas to open Nov. 11

JOHN WRIGHT | Senior Political Writer
wright@dallasvoice.com

A spokeswoman for Omni Hotels confirmed this week that the company will offer domestic partner benefits to its employees at Dallas’ convention center hotel, slated to open next month.

It marks the first time a representative from Irving-based Omni Hotels has stated directly that the company plans to offer DP benefits at the city-owned facility.

Omni, which operates 50 luxury hotels in North America, is one of the few major lodging chains that doesn’t offer DP benefits across the board. However, Omni spokeswoman Caryn Kboudi said the company opted to do so at the convention center hotel because the facility is owned by the city, which has offered DP benefits to its employees since 2004.

“We’re pleased to do it, and it’s in keeping with the city of Dallas’ practices,” Kboudi said.

Kboudi said the convention center hotel, slated to open Nov. 11, will initially employ 600-650 people, about 80 percent of whom will be full time and eligible for benefits. At “peak performance,” the hotel could employ up to 800 people, she said.

The question of whether Omni Hotels would offer DP benefits at the facility was first raised in a Dallas Voice article in April 2009 — two months after the city had signed a 15-year operating agreement with the company for the $500 million hotel.

The article appeared days before the vote on a referendum aimed at barring the city from building and owning the hotel. Mayor Tom Leppert, a major supporter of the hotel, assured the newspaper that he would convince the company to offer DP benefits, even though it had not been considered as part of the operating agreement.

The referendum was defeated, and six weeks later, both Leppert’s office and the North Texas GLBT Chamber of Commerce announced that Omni had agreed to offer DP benefits — although the company wouldn’t confirm it at the time.

“Until you [Dallas Voice] raised the issue, it wasn’t on people’s radar,” said Chris Heinbaugh, who’s openly gay and was Leppert’s chief of staff. “A light bulb went off. It was a significant step for the city.”

It reportedly marked the first time the city has prompted a contractor to offer DP benefits.

Heinbaugh, who now works for the AT&T Performing Arts Center, declined to discuss in detail the negotiations that led to Omni’s commitment to offer DP benefits. Leppert is running for U.S. Senate as a Republican and has come out against both same-sex marriage and civil unions.

A spokesman for Leppert’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In addition to agreeing to offer DP benefits, Omni Hotels joined the North Texas GLBT Chamber in 2009. Tony Vedda, president and CEO of the chamber, said this week the company remains a silver level corporate member, which means an annual contribution of $5,000 to the organization.

“I certainly assumed that they were going to stick to their word [on DP benefits],” Vedda said. “It would be devastating if we were told one thing and something else occurred.”

Vedda said the chamber would also like to see Omni offer DP benefits at its publicly owned convention center hotel in Fort Worth. Fort Worth began offering domestic partner benefits to municipal employees last year.

—  John Wright

Gay backlash over Robert Rowling’s donations spreads from Gold’s Gym to Omni Hotels

We’ve been saying all along that if the LGBT community is going to get pissed off at Gold’s Gym over Robert Rowling’s political contributions, the community should be equally pissed at Omni Hotels. Rowling is the CEO of TRT Holdings, which owns both Gold’s Gym and Omni Hotels. Well, it appears as though some media outlets that have been covering this story are finally beginning to pick up on this fact. The Huffington Post even points to our coverage of Omni’s decision to offer domestic partner benefits at the city of Dallas’ convention center hotel:

But TRT Holdings also owns the Omni Hotels, which may be facing increased heat in the coming days.

“We’re concerned about the massive infusion in corporate money being poured into campaigns in an effort to influence the governance of the country,” says Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “This is extremely disturbing to many, including ourselves. As for the Omni Shoreham, we have used it in the past as an event venue, but have no current plans to do so. We do take such issues into consideration when looking at venue options.”

The Omni Shoreham in Washington, D.C. is a popular hotel and venue for conferences and events, and just one of several dozen of the brand’s locations.

This is not the first time the Omni Hotels have been embroiled in controversy over LGBT issues. Last year, a Dallas Omni chain agreed to offer domestic partner benefits in response from city officials and the North Texas GLBT Chamber of Commerce.

“The Human Rights Campaign has not used an Omni Hotel in a long time,” said Fred Sainz, HRC’s vice president of communications and marketing. “We also have no plans to boycott the hotel chain. We generally don’t agree with boycott as they impact people well beyond the owners of the hotel.”

While HRC didn’t go as far as the Task Force, it did stress it was “concerned about the influx of a lot of anonymous money into this election.” Omni did not return The Huffington Post’s request for comment.

—  John Wright

Fox News talks to Robert Rowling about Gold’s Gym controversy, quotes his neighbor Instant Tea

This is too funny. Highland Park billionaire Robert Rowling, CEO of TRT Holdings, the ownership group for both Gold’s Gym and Omni Hotels, has broken his silence about the controversy over his $2 million in contributions to American Crossroads. And guess who Rowling decided to talk to about it? That’s right, Fox News. But that’s not the funny part. In its story about the Gold’s Gym flap, which is oh-so-cleverly titled “This isn’t working out,” Fox News also quotes this blog, which it says “shares a neighborhood with Rowling.” Really? And which neighborhood would that be? Do they really think Instant Tea can afford to live in Highland Park? Well maybe we could if people like Fox News would link to our freakin’ site when they quote us!!! Bastards. Anyhow, here’s what Bobby-boy had to say for himself and what Fox News had to say about us:

“The facts are so distorted,” Rowling told Fox News, explaining that his donation to American Crossroads had nothing to do with social policies that could spark crossfire. “I’ve never heard one discussion of a social issue. This is all about fiscal sanity.” American Crossroads “supports conservative candidates, and even though those candidates may disagree with them on social issues, the resounding issue is fiscal responsibility.”

Rowling explained that his donation was made knowing that unlike its sister organization, Crossroads GPS, American Crossroads discloses its donors. “I gave to American Crossroads, where I knew my name would be published,” he said.

LGBT online newspaper the Dallas Voice, which shares a neighborhood with Rowling, on Monday likened the criticism from the gay community to similar backlash against Target Corp. over its financial support of an organization that backed Minnesota Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, who has made clear his stance that marriage between a man and a woman is the only form that should be legally recognized.

“…Apparently the only thing we hold more sacred than shopping at Target is working out,” the newspaper deadpanned in a Monday posting.

Target Corp., which is known for its progressive employment policies and sponsorship of Minnesota gay groups, in August faced pressure from its shareholders to retool its donation process to avoid similar problems in the future.

“Gold’s Gym is apolitical. We welcome all members without regard to race, gender, or sexual orientation,” Rowling told Fox News. “We always have, and we always will.”

—  John Wright

Gold’s Gym spokesman: Rowling doesn’t see any profits and San Francisco franchisees are lying

This morning we put a call in to Gold’s Gym’s gayest location in Dallas, at 2425 McKinney Ave. in Uptown, to find out whether management there had any thoughts on the controversy over Robert Rowling’s $2 million in contributions to American Crossroads, the Karl Rove co-founded group that is working to help elect several anti-gay candidates across the country this election cycle.

Rowling, a Highland Park billionaire, is the CEO for TRT Holdings, which is the ownership group for both Gold’s Gym and Omni Hotels. And his contributions have led to a petition calling for Gold’s Gym to stop supporting anti-gay candidates.

We ended up talking with Brad Bean, who happens to be the district manager for Gold’s Gym’s four corporate-owned locations in Dallas. The company’s other six locations in Dallas are franchises, Bean said.

“From a corporate perspective, diversity is a core part of our organization, and we don’t discriminate,” Bean said. “We have zero tolerance. We’re not a political organization, and we don’t use our revenue source to fund political organizations.”

Bean’s statement is essentially a shortened version of the one released by Gold’s Gym International on Monday, which we’ve posted below. A copy of the statement was sent over this morning by Dave Reiseman, vice president of communications for Gold’s Gym International, which happens to be headquartered at 125 E. John Carpenter Freeway in Irving.

We also spoke with Reiseman briefly this morning, and he stressed that Rowling is not the CEO for Gold’s Gym; he is the CEO for TRT Holdings, which is the ownership group.

“Not a nickel of Gold’s Gym’s money, from our members or our franchisees or our employees, went to American Crossroads or any other political organization,” Reiseman told Instant Tea. “Gold’s Gym is an apolitical organization, and we do not donate to political causes or candidates of any kind.”

But doesn’t the company generate a profit for Rowling, who could then have given that money to American Crossroads?

“I think one day if the company is ever sold, he may make a profit there, but right now they just re-invest all the profits back into the business,” Reiseman said. “Needless to say, the LGBT community is hugely important to us. We’re proud to have a strong membership base. A lot of our employees are part of the LGBT community, and so are a lot of our employees here at the corporate office and our franchisees.”

And speaking of franchisees, Reiseman says two of them in San Francisco were flat out lying when they announced Monday that they’re leaving the brand over Rowling’s American Crossroads contributions. Rather, discussions about termination of their franchise agreements for unrelated reasons began months ago, Reiseman said. This statement is below as well.

—  John Wright

Gold’s Gym franchises respond to Bob Rowling’s donations to group backing anti-gay candidates

Earlier we told you about the LGBT community’s apparent outrage over Highland Park billionaire Robert Rowling’s contributions totaling $2 million to the Karl Rove co-founded American Crossroads, which is working to help elect several anti-gay candidates this election cycle. Well, the reaction has been swift from four Gold’s Gym franchises in the San Francisco area, which announced today that they’re severing ties with the brand over the contributions. Via The Huffington Post, here’s a statement from Don Dickerson, director of operations for Gold’s Gym Bay Area:

We were as surprised by [CEO] Mr. [Robert] Rowling’s action as anyone but because our company believes in and lives up to the ideals of equality for all we are going to take the following actions:

1: Our contractual obligation with Gold’s Gym expires on September 15th, 2012 and on or prior to that date (our legal counsel is reviewing our options) we will leave the Gold’s Gym brand. It is a major initiative to create a new brand and leave Gold’s Gym which has been our identity for over 20 years but we will begin that process today.

2: For every dollar we pay Gold’s Gym in franchise fees we will donate an equal or greater amount to LGBT charities. While we donate much more than this to charities and community groups that support the LGBT community we want to make a commitment to match or exceed this amount until our relationship with Gold’s Gym can be severed.

3: Our management and staff will continue to support LGBT causes in every way possible and we will use our business as a platform to fight for change and equality for everyone. We have always taken great pride in being a leader in the LGBT community and we will continue to.

Also, Gold’s Gym International released a statement to The Huff Po saying Rowling’s contributions were totally independent from the company. Rowling serves as CEO of the ownership group for Gold’s Gym, TRT Holdings, which also, as we noted before, owns Omni Hotels. Below is an excerpt from the Gold’s Gym International statement, which you can read in its entirety here:

Gold’s Gym did not make a donation to American Crossroads (or any other political organization) and in no way supports anti-gay causes. Quite the contrary, the Gold’s Gym family has been strong supporters of the LGBT community over the years. This includes supporting PRIDE events, sponsoring LGBT media outlets and donating to various LGBT charities in the communities we serve.

Clearly these folks recognize that their customer base is heavily LGBT, and they’re worried about the response to Rowling’s donations. Stay tuned. On Tuesday, we’ll see if we can talk to some representatives from Gold’s Gym locations in North Texas. Who ever said boycotts, or at least the threat of them, doesn’t work? Are you listening, Mr. Rowling?

—  John Wright

Is Gold’s Gym the new Target?

Robert Rowling

A few years back we wrote about how, unlike the vast majority of lodging chains, Omni Hotels doesn’t offer domestic partner benefits to its employees.

Our reporting prompted the Irving-based company to agree to offer DP benefits at the city of Dallas’ new convention center hotel, which is being built by the city and will be operated by Omni. It remains to be seen whether Omni makes good on this promise, which didn’t come directly from the company but was communicated through city officials who were trying to get voters to sign off on a bond issue to finance construction of the hotel.

Anyhow, in our initial story, we told you a little about the owner of Omni parent company TRT Holdings, Highland Park billionaire Robert Rowling. Rowling is a big-time Republican donor who’s contributed funds to some virulently anti-gay politicians over the years, including former Pennsylvania Congressman Rick Santorum.

So it wasn’t overly surprising to learn last week, via Politico, that Rowling is among the leading donors to American Crossroads, the new group co-founded by Karl Rove. As Change.org notes, American Crossroads is working to help elect some of the biggest bigots on the ballot this year, including Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle.

Rowling has kicked in $2 million to American Crossroads, which puts him behind only fellow Texan and Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, who’s contributed about $7 million. Bob Perry, of course, is best known to the LGBT community for helping to bankroll, to the tune of $100,000, the state’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in 2005.

In fact, Rove has drawn heavily on his Texas buddies in general to fund American Crossroads, as other major donors include Trevor Rees-Jones, president of Dallas-based Chief Oil and Gas; and Dallas billionaire investor Harold Simmons, of Swift Boat and Bill Ayers fame.

But none of the contributions to American Crossroads has drawn as much attention from the LGBT community as Rowling’s, which appears to be generating a virtual firestorm in the gay blogosphere. That’s because in addition to Omni Hotels, Rowling’s TRT Holdings owns Gold’s Gym, and apparently the only thing we hold more sacred than shopping at Target is working out.

Change.org has launched a petition, which now has more than 1,700 signatures, calling on Gold’s Gym to stop supporting anti-gay politicians, and the story was picked up by Towleroad, Joe.My.God. and The Advocate over the weekend.

In other words, it looks like Gold’s Gym is the new Target, so to speak, and aren’t we lucky to have the owner living right next to our gayborhood in Highland Park? But if Gold’s Gym is really the new Target, shouldn’t Omni Hotels be the new Best Buy?

—  John Wright

LGBT community must keep pressure on Omni Hotels to become gay-friendly

A conceptual drawing of the Convention Center hotel.
A conceptual drawing of the Convention Center hotel.

The city of Dallas has secured commitments from investors to buy $479.8 million in bonds to finance construction of the Convention Center hotel, according to The Dallas Morning News. Mayor Tom Leppert says a groundbreaking for the hotel will be held within a few weeks, and construction could be complete by early 2012. So what better time to post this column I wrote recently about the company that will operate the hotel, Irving-based Omni Hotels, and its recent decision to offer domestic partner benefits to employees at the facility. The column was intended for the print edition of Dallas Voice a while back, but got bumped due to a lack of space. Read it after the jump.

—  John Wright