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Monday, November 21, 2005 | The last the San Diego Chargers saw of Mike Aguirre he was a pesky citizen. He arrived at the evening meetings of the mayor’s task force on stadium issues armed with blown-up newspaper articles and accompanied by the likes of a college professor who regularly referred to the National Football League as a “cartel.”
The private attorney used his companions and the public comment portion of the 2002 and 2003 meetings to combat the football team’s public statements about their need for a new home and their past promises.
The Chargers may still consider Aguirre pesky. But add a new title before his name and City Attorney Mike Aguirre turns from private pest to powerful public official.
From that title comes a new venue from which to address the team’s desires the same way he has dealt with the city’s other high-profile issues: with his usual confrontational style. To be sure, the Chargers have adapted quickly. Instead of simply brushing off the concerns of citizen Aguirre, the team now frequently releases documents to the media and the public contesting what team officials say are inaccuracies in the city attorney’s public statements regarding their contract and new stadium proposal.
“The sad fact is that you have become the Terrell Owens of San Diego by making name-calling and erroneous statements regular weapons in your perpetual grabs for television cameras,” the team’s special counsel, Mark Fabiani, wrote last week in a letter addressed to Aguirre.
It was a reference to the temperamental Philadelphia Eagles star football player who was recently suspended from the team indefinitely for making disparaging public remarks about his teammates and coach.
“And I’ve called them corporate welfare queens,” Aguirre said. “They’re talking smack. They’re just not used to anybody talking smack back to them. I think they’ll get past that and we’ll move forward.”
The battle just began simmering but is likely to rage as the Chargers progress towards a stadium proposal that could be before voters a year from now. It could be ramping up quickly, too. Just as he’s done with the pension system, the city’s consultants and its wastewater system, Aguirre plans to complete a background report into the Chargers past dealings with the city within a month.
“We anticipate that Aguirre will be a roadblock at every step of the way. And if, in the end, the Chargers are unable to work out a deal in San Diego, Aguirre will be the one responsible for that outcome,” said Mark Fabiani, the Chargers’ special counsel.
Indeed, the back-and-forth between the city attorney and the team isn’t merely a personality issue. It’s one of many significant dynamics that have changed since the Chargers’ business representatives were last selling the idea of a new football stadium to San Diegans in 2002 and 2003.
For one, the American public in general doesn’t support publicly subsidized ballparks and football stadiums with the same fervor it did in the 1990s and early 2000s. In that era, a construction boom of new, publicly financed stadiums left cities and team owners constantly trying to keep up with the Joneses. Significant changes between the Chargers’ original stadium proposal and the one on the table now reflect that change.
And while the team’s on-the-field performance has improved greatly in recent years, the city’s financial picture has gone from above-average to desperately poor since the Chargers first presented a stadium plan in January 2003. The city’s shaky finances and political uncertainty, team officials say, have driven away prospective developers needed to complete the housing and retail buildings that would stand alongside a new football stadium in Mission Valley.
The political whirlwind has even changed the basic equation. Talk no longer simply focuses around if the voters will approve the package. The debate now shifts to whether the team can even get a proposal on the ballot in 2006 because of the city’s meltdown, and what potential roadblocks await a development plan if it is approved by voters.
Fabiani said any voter-approved development of the scale proposed by the team will require the close cooperation of a number of government entities, including the city.
“If key city officials are fighting you every step of the way, the project will never succeed and the capital invested will be lost,” he said.
Then there’s always lustful Los Angeles. The nation’s second largest city has been without a team for a decade and the NFL reached a preliminary deal with the Los Angeles Coliseum last week to remodel the stadium to pro football standards. Anaheim is also said to desire a team.
The Chargers, too, have recognized some of their shortcomings. Understanding that they had a community relations issue spawning largely from unpopular contracts in the past, team officials now concentrate as much on community relations as they do political maneuvering.
A different game than 2003
“I think there is certainly more resistance to heavily subsidized facilities and an interest in development strategies that guarantee investments,” Mark Rosentraub, a stadium expert and professor of urban affairs at Cleveland State University, said in an e-mail.
Indeed, that creed is evidenced in the changes seen to the Chargers’ proposal in recent years.
Nowhere does the backlash against public subsidies seem more noticeable than in San Diego. Padres team owner John Moores is so highly regarded outside of San Diego that he was handpicked by President Jimmy Carter as chairman of the Carter Center. The former president’s foundation is dedicated to “advancing human rights and alleviating unnecessary human suffering.” He also sits on the board of regents of the nation’s most prestigious state university system, the University of California.
Here, in his adopted hometown, Moores’ name is often scorned. It is synonymous with corporate welfare because of the 1998 deal approved by voters that gave Moores a new ballpark and priceless patches of downtown land with the help of more than $200 million in taxpayer funds.
It is a fact that doesn’t appear lost upon Chargers officials. The stadium proposal they originally floated in January 2003 asked for more than $200 million of public money and included the sale of public land.
The proposal today looks quite different from that the Chargers shop around town now to community, business and labor groups.
The plan today is fairly simple. The team wants the city to give it 60 acres of the 166-acre Mission Valley site. In exchange, the team offers to build a new stadium that it expects will attract a number of Super Bowls in the future. The team, along with development partners, also proposes to construct a mixed-used development that would include housing, retail and office space.
On the 60 acres, the Chargers would build condos, the sale of which would help offset developers’ costs in other aspects of the project.
A 30-acre public park, to be paid for and built by the team, is included. And the team says it will also pay off the remainder of the bond payments left over from the 1997 remodeling of Qualcomm Stadium, as well as the infrastructure improvements that will be necessary to accommodate new growth and traffic. Those improvements include such things as roads, sewer lines and adequate police and fire protection.
The bond and infrastructure costs are likely to total more than $200 million, according to team estimates.
The stadium itself is estimated to cost $450 million, will be city-owned and paid for by the team.
Putting a price tag on the public land that would be ceded to the team is tricky. Some speculators say it is invaluable because of its location. Team officials point out that it’s worth nothing so long as it remains trapped under the glacier of concrete ringing the stadium.
Aguirre said the proposal is simple. Do San Diegans want to give up 60 acres of public land in exchange for keeping the team in town for the foreseeable future?
“There’s no economic benefit to the city,” he said.
Not so fast, say others. Many, including many city officials, see a sizable benefit in the elimination of the city’s $6 million annual bond payment, which remains from the 1997 Qualcomm renovation that was supposed to keep the team in town for decades. Fabiani also points out that the deal will eliminate for the city $19 million in annual maintenance and operating costs at Qualcomm Stadium.
“This is a trade,” Fabiani said. “This is not a giveaway.”
Another issue that will likely be debated will be whether or not congested Mission Valley can handle the strains of more development.
And as the Chargers have regained credibility on the football field, they continue to try and improve their credibility as corporate citizens.
Gone is the ghastly ticket guarantee, a clause that forced the city to buy the unsold tickets of every Charger game. The team no longer holds training camp near Los Angeles in Carson, something it did briefly to the protest of many fans weary of losing the team to its northern neighbors.
That appeared to become a more real possibility this month, when the NFL signed a preliminary deal to revamp the Los Angeles Coliseum into a pro football-worthy venue. When the Chargers first sought a stadium in 2002 and 2003, stadium proposals abounded in Los Angeles, but no deal was anything more than an idea.
But Chargers officials say they have been put on the defensive by the city attorney’s public statements.
With or without the title of city attorney, Mike Aguirre would be one of the most frequent critics of the Chargers stadium dealing. But with the title, he’ll be smack dab in the middle of the closed-door negotiations. And next to him on the negotiating team will be political ally and fellow Chargers skeptic City Councilwoman Donna Frye.
Before pensions, before investigations, before his election, Aguirre spent plenty of time hounding the team. Now he appears to be genuinely excited about the upcoming talks.
Aguirre and his supporters promise he’ll be there to make sure the city avoids the disastrous contracts of the past. The team’s boosters think he’ll play the role of saboteur rather than savior.
“My role is not to be a rubber stamp, but to ask the question so that voters can be in the place to make a right decision and are not bamboozled,” Aguirre said.
For now, everyone has their own vision of how the negotiations will play out.
“Your participation on the city’s negotiating team dooms the process before it even begins,” Fabiani wrote in his Nov. 10 letter to the city attorney.
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