Chargers’ stadium search is a moving target.
By Joe Tash
Could the “hidden valley” of Escondido have been the number one draft pick of the San Diego Chargers all along?
In recent months, the Chargers’ search for a new “San Diego” stadium site has turned northward, following the implosion of Chula Vista’s finances and its troublesome bay-front power plant, and the solid defeat of Proposition B, where voters said “no way” to building a stadium over the bay’s banana-receiving Tenth-Street Terminal.
Seven years after it began, the team’s search for a new home continues with the big contenders today being sites in Escondido, Oceanside and – surprise – Downtown San Diego.
And while all the talk and press was flying over Oceanside’s two sites – the early contender near a golf course and the newer proposal near the city’s municipal airport – could it be that the Chargers have had a hidden agenda leading to Escondido’s doorstep all along?
The idea of building a new home for the Bolts in Escondido surfaced earlier this year when Mitch Mitchell, a downtown business leader and vice president of external affairs for San Diego Gas & Electric, introduced Mark Fabiani, the Chargers’ special counsel charged with finding a new stadium site, to Dave Ferguson, a veteran Escondido land-use attorney. That initial meeting led to further meetings with Escondido Mayor Lori Holt Pfeiler.
“We’d love for the Chargers to locate in Escondido,” says Pfeiler. “We’d certainly be cooperative in trying to work something out, but we don’t own any property.”
Neither, she says, does the city have the kind of money – estimated at $1 billion – that it would take to build a stadium. Pfeiler believes a regional solution involving local government agencies may be the way to go, and she also leaves open the door to what she calls a “creative” approach that could involve the use of future tax revenue generated by a stadium and related development to help pay for the project.
Those involved in the talks say a stadium near the intersection of Interstate 15 and State Route 78 would have great transportation links, from the freeways and the new Sprinter light rail line between Oceanside and Escondido. A North County stadium would also help lure fans from further north, an attractive proposition to the Chargers.
“It seems to be an excellent spot,” says Mitchell, who, along with Fairbanks Ranch businessman Dan Shea, helped broker a new lease between the city of San Diego and the Chargers in 2004 that eliminated an unpopular provision requiring the city to buy unsold tickets.
The major problem with Escondido, however, is the lack of an empty piece of land big enough for a stadium. Fabiani says a 50-acre site would be needed for the stadium and some 4,000 to 5,000 parking spaces for luxury box and club seat holders. Fabiani says the southwest quadrant of State Route 78 near the I-15 that backs up to the Nordahl Road Sprinter station is “definitely the right section of land.” It’s dotted with tilt-up industrial buildings, which Pfeiler and Ferguson both agree is underutilized.
And Pfeiler’s idea of a joint-city agreement is already gaining traction: the cities of Oceanside and Escondido might look at ways to partner, and in the process, solving one of the biggest obstacles: finding enough space for both a stadium and a mixed-use development that could help fund the stadium. It might be possible for one city to build the mixed-use project, the other city the stadium, and then revenue share.
“That was something that Oceanside Councilman Rocky Chavez came up with,” said Fabiani, with a bit of bemusement, when informed of a news report on KGTV. “I’m never going to react negatively to something that a council representative introduces, because our council reps are important to us. But at the same time, I don’t want this proposal to be overstated. As far as I know, it’s not a big deal. I just talked to our Escondido people and they don’t know what’s going on. There’s nothing formal out there right now.”
“At the same time, obviously if you have more than one site, you’ve got more options,” he said, noting that nothing is off the table.
So, Mark Fabiani, do you have a favorite site?
Fabiani laughs. And laughs.
“Favorite is a relative term,” he says. “After seven years and $10 million worth of work, I would say, if you could do it, the Downtown site makes the most sense simply because it’s a lot cheaper and the transportation is there, the parking is there. If you look at any other site, you’re going to have to make major road improvements, find major parking or build structured parking which is tremendously expensive. And we’ve got to finance all of that. But, again, there is no perfect site.”
One advantage the northern locales offer is their proximity to Orange and Riverside counties, both areas rich in Charger season ticket holders. Escondido promoters are quick to point out the ease in having fans bussed down from Temecula, or Orange County fans parking in Oceanside and “Sprinting” over. Similarly, San Diego fans are logging onto area websites, such as voiceofsandiego.org, to say that they’re more than willing to spend 30 minutes driving to Escondido if it means keeping the team in the county.
Fabiani says up to 30 percent of the club’s “luxury business” — luxury suites, club seats, signage partners, business partners and advertisers — are based in Orange and Los Angeles counties.
Fabiani won’t speculate on when the Chargers might pull up stakes, but one thing is clear — the team’s store of patience has its limits.
When team officials announced their desire for a new stadium in 2002, they cited their need to improve revenue through such means as the sale of luxury box seats and other amenities, and the difficulties of competing in an aging facility such as 42-year-old Qualcomm Stadium in Mission Valley. Elected officials have come and gone, interest in various potential stadium sites has waxed and waned, but the team’s basic position has remained constant.
“This is a business. If you are $50 million, $75 million, $100 million behind other teams in the league in the revenue standpoint, at some point you have to do something about that,” Fabiani says. “I just can’t imagine this would go on another seven years. I think the next year or two are critical.”
Under the scenario being considered in Escondido, most fans would have to park off-site, either on surrounding streets, in office parking lots unused on Sunday afternoons, or other locations.
Such a change from the tailgate scene at Qualcomm “will be a big jolt to fans,” Fabiani concedes, but says the model will be more like Petco Park in Downtown San Diego.
The first task, says Ferguson, is a thorough study of such issues as marketing, transportation and, most critically, financing such a venture, and whether the model of building ancillary development to help pay for a stadium is workable. The Chargers say they intend to privately finance a new stadium through the profits from related commercial and residential development, rather than seeking public funding.
A definitive answer on the financing question is still at least 30 days away, says Ferguson. At that point, the focus would turn to identifying a specific location.
“My gut feeling is if the financial model can be made to work we can find a place for the Chargers in Escondido,” says Ferguson.
As the Chargers and Escondido officials study options, the team is analyzing another North County location, the site of a defunct drive-in movie theater on State Route 76 in Oceanside.
As with the Escondido location, the Oceanside site has good prospects because of its proximity to Interstate 5, and accessibility to fans in Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties.
Another advantage is the 90-acre site is controlled by Thomas Enterprises, a willing partner which contacted the Chargers when the poor economy stalled the company’s plan to build a regional shopping center on the property.
One fly in the ointment – as big as a Cessna four-seater – is Oceanside’s municipal airport, which is next to the Thomas Enterprises property.
“No question, that’s a very tough issue,” says Fabiani, who contends a 230-foot-tall stadium would be incompatible with the airport for safety reasons.
The only options, then, are to close or relocate the airport, which would require the approval of both Oceanside officials and the Federal Aviation Administration.
Mel Kuhnel, vice president for west coast development with Thomas Enterprises, said his company has conducted extensive research and concluded the airport issue can be resolved by counter-balancing the loss of the Oceanside airport with improvements to a nearby facility such as Palomar-McClellan Airport in Carlsbad, or Fallbrook airport.
“We’re excited about the possibility,” says Kuhnel, whose company holds a 90-year lease on the property. “We just think if you put a bulls-eye for an ideal site for the Chargers, that is it.”
Reaction from Oceanside City Council members ranged from cautiously optimistic to dubious.
“It’s a really long, long shot to pull this off,” says Councilman Jack Feller, who believes the stadium would have been a better fit at another Oceanside site previously considered and rejected by the Chargers, a municipal golf course next to I-5.
Obstacles such as the airport and potential traffic jams on SR-76 stand in the way, says, Feller, “but we need to look at every option when it comes to progress for our city. If they come up with options that make sense, absolutely I’m going to listen.”
Councilman Rocky Chavez says the Chargers could be part of a long-term strategy to bring jobs and diversity to Oceanside’s economic base, if the community supports the idea. Chavez says he wouldn’t support closing the airport to land a new Chargers stadium, and other sites should be considered as part of a broader vision for the city’s future.
According to Councilwoman Esther Sanchez, there’s a perception in Oceanside that the Chargers are merely going through the motions of looking for a site in San Diego County before departing for greener pastures. San Antonio and Las Vegas have expressed interest in the franchise, and another developer is seeking to build a football stadium in the City of Industry near Los Angeles.
Like Feller, Sanchez says the airport and traffic problems would be difficult to overcome.
“I just don’t see this happening in any way,” says Sanchez. “I have not seen anything that’s been serious at all. It’s part of the dance on the way out.”
Downtown Isn’t Dead.
Of the three sites now under consideration, says Fabiani, the front-runner from a financial standpoint may be Downtown San Diego, because of existing infrastructure such as freeways, public transit and parking, which would trim some $200 million from the cost of the project.
San Diego officials have also been more open in recent months to meeting with the team, which Fabiani attributes to the election in 2008 of Jan Goldsmith as city attorney. Goldsmith’s predecessor, Mike Aguirre, was known for taking a combative stance with the team and its goal of a new stadium.
The Chargers have met with Goldsmith, Mayor Jerry Sanders’ staff, and business leaders, the San Diego Unified Port District, redevelopment officials and others, Fabiani says.
The site most mentioned is the 10th Avenue Marine Terminal, which is owned by the Port District and used for loading and unloading cargo, Fabiani says. Last year, voters rejected a proposal to build a massive deck above the terminal where a stadium, hotel and/or other development could have been built.
“A lot of people feel that with smart land use, you could have a 30-acre stadium site and the same or greater port activities,” Fabiani says. “You would have to persuade the Port Commission to support you.”
Such support appears unlikely.
“The comment surprises me because Mark and I have worked together over three-plus years. He knows there is no way the 10th Avenue Marine Terminal can co-host a Chargers stadium and continue to maintain marine operations,” says Port Commission Chairman Steve Cushman. “We wouldn’t be in the maritime business if we did that. The bottom line is it is not possible for the two to co-exist together.”
In any case, Goldsmith says he, like Fabiani, is encouraged by the renewed dialogue between the city and the team: “The lines of communication are open.”
The next step is to find a site that makes financial sense for both the city and the Chargers, which Goldsmith calls a “win-win.”
“We need to have patience and perseverance. I cannot tell you if we will find the right mix of a project,” Goldsmith said.
For now, the Chargers remain firmly ensconced in Mission Valley. Each year, the team has a window of time from February 1 to May 1 when it can notify the city of its intention to leave. If it gives notice in 2010, it will owe the city $56 million for breaking its lease. The following year, the lease termination fee drops to $25 million, and gradually declines until 2020, when the lease ends.
“I don’t think anyone would have wanted it to occur this way,” says Mitchell, “where there’s a mad scramble… but somewhere in this region there is an opportunity to find a place to house the San Diego Chargers and keep our home team here.”
Fabiani will tell you that the question he’s asked most often is when will the team leave San Diego if it doesn’t get a new stadium. He says he can’t answer the question with any degree of certainty.
“I’m not a very accurate predictor of the future,” says Fabiani, who was hired in 2002 by team President Dean Spanos to lead the stadium quest. At the time, he says, “I never would have predicted we’d still be working on it in 2009.”
Until the Chargers come up with a solid plan for a new stadium in San Diego County, fans will have to hold their breath each spring until the termination deadline passes.z