Journalism won’t die if you donate. Support Voice of San Diego today!

Monday, June 19. 2006 | One of the most frequent criticisms I get is that I’m only good at criticizing (I know, that’s ironic, isn’t it?). The thought is that we’re here sitting on the sidelines bashing the people who put their ideas and their souls out into the public arena. They’re the ones doing and we’re the ones just criticizing.

That’s ridiculous. We put our necks out every day. I get loads and loads of criticism for my ideas and thoughts.

But you want an idea?

OK try this one:

Let’s make a decision once and for all on this Chargers thing. Let’s try to keep the team here. Let’s lead people to a proper solution on it.

How? Very simple: We gather all the old Republicans together and we decide how much a new football stadium would cost to build and set up properly. We then ask Chargers Owner Alex Spanos and his son Dean to tell us exactly how much they’re willing to spend on it. Then we make them throw in about $50 million more. Then we subtract that number from the total cost of a new stadium.

I’m making a pretty educated guess that the difference will be about $175 million.

Now the solution: We ask voters if they want to pay that amount. We put something on the ballot asking them to approve or reject a small sales tax that will enable a stadium to be built.

If they say yes, we build the stadium and skip into the sunset holding hands with the Chargers.

If they say no, the Chargers can either keep their deal at Qualcomm and maybe try again in the future or move to another city.

Very simple, very transparent and so logical that it really has no chance of ever happening in San Diego.

But let’s try to give it one.

When Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen was lobbying that city to build a new stadium, he was doing all the same kind of things that Chargers President Dean Spanos is now: vaguely threatening to leave the town and emphasizing the shortcomings of the old – but much-loved – stadium that the team was inhabiting.

Bowlen agreed to put up a healthy chunk of the cost of the new stadium and Colorado officials came up with a proposal to voters. They asked residents to approve a tax of 1 cent for every $10 spent on retail goods – a sort of mini-sales tax. Fifty-seven percent of Denver metro area voters approved the referendum and now the Denver Broncos have a stadium.

Why is it a good idea?

The Chargers, it seems, want to stay in Mission Valley. The team came up with a plan, a couple of years ago, where it would build a new stadium in Mission Valley. All the city would have to do is pay the $175 million or so it would cost to build sewers and road improvements needed to support the new facility.

The city, of course, began to have troubles. But not only that, the Chargers did too. There are few organizations in the region that have bungled their public relations as badly as this team did.

Looking at those two realities – that the city was falling into some hard times and that the Chargers had a bit of a public-image problem themselves – the team came up with the dream solution: It would no longer ask the city to pay for the infrastructure improvements needed to support a new stadium in Mission Valley.

Not only that, but the team offered to pay off all of the debt that the city still owes on Qualcomm Stadium. (San Diego, you’ll remember, went into debt in the late 1990s to renovate Qualcomm.)

It was a great deal. All the Chargers wanted in exchange was 60 acres of land on which it would build 6,000 condominiums (yes, six thousand new homes in horrid Mission Valley) in an already oversaturated condo market. The sale of those condos would make building a new stadium worth the Chargers’ while and everyone was going to be happy. The city didn’t have to pay. The Chargers were going to pull down a profit. And even the Chargers’ developer partners would come out well.

That proved to be a bit ambitious.

The market for condos in San Diego is cooling and, combined with the city’s problems, the situation scared away potential condo developers. The proposal died several months ago.

Mayor Jerry Sanders and the San Diego City Council then agreed to let the Chargers talk to other local governments about working out a deal.

And here we are, waiting to see what the county supervisors and other local officials can come up with. There are meetings going on right now.

Which is why I’m bringing this up today.

I say we go back to the plan from two years ago in which local government will be obligated to pay for the infrastructure of a new stadium. The Chargers only dumped that part of their plan because they were afraid the city wouldn’t be able to come up with that kind of money. And they were right.

Next we ask local taxpayers if that’s really what they want to do. Do you want a stadium or not? Be clear with them: “Stadiums aren’t free. The Chargers don’t want to pay for the whole thing and they might be able to go to another town where taxpayers will give them more support. But the city of San Diego already has lots of debt and obligations, as does the county. There’s no money to pay for this right now, in other words. So, are you willing to pay more tax for a new stadium?”

The problem in the past with major projects in San Diego is that local leaders have wanted to do them but never wanted to ask taxpayers to pay for them. So, to do all these great things they would just shift money from one budget to another and now we’re stuck wondering why in the world they thought that kind of thing was OK.

Let’s stop that. Let’s change San Diego forever and begin a hopefully long tradition of making decisions about what we want only after identifying ways to pay for it.

The county should put a proposal on the ballot that reads something like this:

In order to keep the Chargers football team in San Diego and to provide the San Diego State University with a state of the art facility to host large-audience events, shall the county government impose a $0.01 sales tax on every $10 worth of retail products purchased in the county and use it to construct infrastructure supporting a new stadium provided: 1) that no additional public funds are used for the project 2) that the tax be revoked when the stadium is paid off and 3) that deodorant be provided free of charge to all visiting Raider fans.

Why not? Denver did it. Do Denver fans love football more than San Diego? If so, then maybe they do deserve to have a nicer stadium.

The residents need to be asked once and for all how much they’re willing to spend to keep the NFL in San Diego. If they want the Chargers to stay and they want the county to do whatever it needs to do to keep them here, they will agree to pay a penny or less for every $10 they spend on retail goods.

If the Chargers don’t have that much goodwill, then the result of this public referendum would make that clear to elected leaders: Don’t subsidize sports stadiums using taxpayer money.

And be wary of anyone who objects to this and tells you that it won’t cost anyone a dime to put up a stadium. To build great things like stadiums, sacrifices and a pooling of resources must occur. We can’t go on imagining that there’s a third way – a painless route to fantasyland.

The Chargers still hold that they might be able to find some kind of development arrangement that would reward the team enough to pay for new stadium entirely. I’m skeptical. If it would have been a profitable venture to do it in Mission Valley, as the team most recently planned, then somebody would have stepped up to partner with the Chargers.

That said, if taxpayers want to lower their contribution to a new stadium even further by throwing some land the Chargers’ way, then that can be on the table too.

My solution, however, would raise one simple and formidable challenge for stadium backers. Unlike Colorado, California law requires that any new tax like this receive a two-thirds vote. So, whereas Denver-area voters approved their stadium tax with a 57 percent majority, 67 percent of San Diego voters would have to approve such a deal here.

The worry is that a majority of San Diegans may go for it but not enough to meet this threshold.

I don’t see this as a problem. Again, if Spanos is being sincere about his willingness to fund the project, we wouldn’t have to raise as much taxpayer money as Denver did. That means we can ask taxpayers for a less money. We might even be able to set a target at about half of what Denver’s threshold was.

Hospitals and other agencies raise bonds and taxes and successfully gain approval from two-thirds of voters. If stadium backers can make the same kind of case that hospitals do, then it will pass. If a stadium is not considered to be as important to residents, it should be rejected.

Many will criticize me today and say there are far more important things for which we should raise taxes. So vote against it. And Charger fans will have to deal with the fact that their neighbors hold different priorities.

The law is what the law is. We have to face the consequences of having such a difficult limitation in place that keeps government from raising taxes.

It’s not dealing with those consequences in a realistic fashion that has caused so many problems for this city in the past. Let’s do it right this time and set a precedent for the indefinite future.

We’ll be following up on this at the SLOP Blog so stay tuned and click here to put in your two cents on this proposal at the Readers Forum.

Please contact Scott Lewis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.