Chargers' ballot doubts are met with skepticism

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Oct 14, 2005

The day after the Chargers cast doubt on their ability to put a proposal for a new stadium before voters next fall, some skeptics wondered whether the announcement was spin or the real deal.

The team announced Thursday that it has been trying for almost a year to find a development partner but had been hampered by the political and financial turmoil at San Diego City Hall.

Absent a partner who would share the risk on $800 million in upfront development costs for a new $450 million stadium and a housing and commercial project at the Qualcomm Stadium site, a Chargers spokesman said the team may not get ballot language to the city by February to qualify the proposal for a November 2006 election.

The team says it needs time to circulate the petition in the weeks after February to gather signatures from registered voters to get the measure on the fall ballot.

Yesterday, as two representatives of the Chargers reiterated their concerns at a luncheon meeting of civic leaders, there was skepticism in some quarters and support in others.

"That's spin. It's a PR move," said City Attorney Michael Aguirre, who before he was elected last year often questioned the city's dealings with the Chargers.

He said neither the city's pension deficit of at least $1.4 billion nor the vacancies of a mayor and two City Council members should prevent the team from going ahead with the ballot measure.

It would ask voters whether the city should give the team 60 acres at the Qualcomm site to build housing, a hotel, offices and retail outlets. The revenue from the developments would pay for a new stadium, which would be built on the 166-acre site.

"It's a mystery to me why that project can't be put before the people of San Diego so they can decide," said Aguirre, adding that he is willing to discuss any ideas or concerns the Chargers may have.

Businessman Dan Shea, a Chargers' booster, said he believes the team is having difficulty finding a partner, and the city should create a backup plan to help keep the team in the county.

The Chargers can begin talking in January 2007 with other cities about relocating. Shea wants the city to amend its lease with the team to allow it to talk with other cities in the county. Under the lease, the team can leave town after the 2008 season.

"We're in danger of losing this team," Shea said.

Former Councilman Bruce Henderson, who unsuccessfully sued to prevent public money from being spent on the Padres' downtown ballpark and to stop a 1997 expansion of Qualcomm Stadium, said he believes the Chargers really want to leave.

Henderson said the Mission Valley site poses enormous challenges, including traffic congestion, petrochemical contamination and expensive development costs.

"They're talking about spending $800 million up front. That's an incredible amount for even a billionaire," Henderson said. "I don't believe the plan is real. I don't think they're serious."

Libertarian activist Richard Rider, who made a failed bid for mayor this year, said he believes the team is threatening to pull the proposal off the table because the Chargers are not off to a winning start.

The Chargers need a winning season to capture voter support for the proposal, he said. The team has a 2-3 record.

"They've done their marketing, and they sense the time is not right," Rider said.

At a meeting yesterday of the Catfish Club, Chargers Vice President Jim Steeg and team spokesman Mark Fabiani said they are working to make the November 2006 ballot. If that doesn't work, the team will try for 2007.

"We're determined to work with everyone," Fabiani said. "We believe that if we can sit down and talk about it (the stadium proposal), we can convince them it's a good idea."

The team is scheduled Wednesday to provide an update on the ballot proposal to the City Council's Land Use and Housing Committee.

Steeg said the team is off to a great start this season in ticket sales, having had its biggest crowd ever when the Chargers lost Monday night to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The team knows it has to overcome an impression that owner Alex Spanos has been a "taker" in San Diego since buying the team in 1984, Steeg said. He also said Spanos gives generously to charity but does not publicize it.

Fabiani said the team has not talked to other cities about a new stadium because it would violate the Chargers' lease with the city. The team won't pursue the right to talk with other cities, he said, but would "take advantage of it" if the council decided to permit the discussions.

Since last November, the team has received seven letters from individuals asking about a possible move. Three involved Chula Vista, with one each from National City, Pasadena, Anaheim and a businessman in the county. The Pasadena and Anaheim letters were general and did not include a relocation proposal.

All of the letters were forwarded to the City Attorney's Office, and the team, abiding by its lease, did not engage in discussions, Fabiani said.

The Chargers have looked at other sites in the city, but no other ones make sense from the standpoint of fan familiarity and accessible mass transit, Steeg said. Of the 68,000 who attended Monday night's game, 19,000 rode the trolley, he said.

While several cities in San Diego County yesterday reported a lack of interest or a lack of available land for a stadium, Chula Vista Councilman John McCann said his city could accommodate the Chargers' new home.

McCann, who wrote one of the letters, said the city would be interested in talking to the Chargers should the team expand its search.

Chula Vista, he said, has vacant land on the east side and a major roadway being built – south state Route 125 is scheduled to open in October 2006. The city's border proximity is also a benefit, McCann said.

While the Chula Vista bayfront is unavailable because of a proposed development, McCann said Otay Ranch would work.