Wednesday, July 26, 2006 | Two South Bay cities gearing up for stadium talks with the Chargers see more than just touchdowns and cheerleaders. They see dollar signs.

Chula Vista, underappreciated as the region’s second-largest city, sees diversification. The housing boom of the first half of this decade left the city flush with cash, as displayed by acres upon acres of new housing developments and a shiny new City Hall. But city officials, wise to the fact that the housing rush won’t keep their piggybank filled forever, are looking to widen their long-term financial foundation through a number of tactics, including a new convention center, the redevelopment of their urban core and the addition of retail. And, of course, the Chargers.

Their neighbors over in National City see it a bit differently. They’ve got a structural deficit that’s been temporarily bridged by a sales tax increase that sunsets in 10 years. So they have a decade to boost their income and permanently fill their budget gap. The biggest name on their minds: the Chargers.

To these city officials and residents we offer a note of caution: Be very careful not to make this decision based on dollar signs.

Let’s be clear. We believe the Chargers are an important part of San Diego and well worth the efforts to keep them here. They bring us diversion and joy – and sometimes heartbreak. What they don’t bring us are bags of cash to solve our financial problems.

Time and again, economists and academics have refuted – or at least downsized considerably – claims by the National Football League or others of what luring a team or Super Bowl can do for a local economy.

As a coalition of portside business interests pointed out in a letter last week to National City Mayor Nick Inzunza, professional sports largely bring low-paying, seasonal employment. Economists say that if you want economic development, you’re better off using public resources to lure a high-tech company or another industry that brings stable, well-paying jobs with benefits.

But if it’s football you want, then get yourself a football team.

That’s why we urge that this decision be made for the right reasons. Let’s keep the Chargers because we like having a football team in San Diego. Let’s strip away the hopes of riches and make it what it is: an emotional and cultural decision.

To be sure, the Chargers could bring something to Chula Vista or National City that they couldn’t bring to the city of San Diego, and that is name recognition. Professional stadium deals in Anaheim and Irving, Texas, raised both civic pride and name identification.

There’s little doubt either one of our two South Bay neighborhoods could raise their profile in a day by inking a stadium deal. Maybe such a beacon would attract a corporate headquarters or more.

Talks are still young. There is no financial plan or proposal on the table, and the Chargers say they could privately finance a stadium with the proceeds from a parallel housing and retail development. Maybe a deal can be done without public funds.

But as we watch what comes from these talks, we will be looking closely to see how public funds are to be used and what level of public participation is appropriate – and to make sure the proper conversation is being had.

We hope that the officials and residents of National City and Chula Vista go forward in their negotiations, but with a solid understanding of the economics of sport.

Additionally, the county supervisors should take a leading role and make any effort – regardless of what city it takes place in – a regional one that preserves both public coffers and professional football in San Diego.

It is dangerous for a city to head into stadium talks with only money on its mind. Needing money can make you desperate. Being desperate can make you gamble. Gambling on sports can get you in trouble.

So, here’s to seeing a smart, publicly approved stadium deal that keeps the Chargers in town, protects the public and leaves the high-stakes wagers to Vegas.

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