I agree that wrapping those three in a div is the right approach. The reason that you see no background in the content_wrapper is because all of the contained divs are floated making their height essentially zero as far as content_wrapper is concerned. The old overflow trick will fix things…
background: url(navigation/wrapperRepeat.png) repeat-y;
That may not fixe everything but it will fix problem as it relates to the height of the div.
For the record, you should not use visually related id names… instead of left, center, right use name that indicate the type of content.
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Of course you would need to change the css declarations if you do this.