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Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2006 | National City’s aspirations of wooing the stadium-shopping San Diego Chargers received an icy reception Tuesday when city leaders presented their idea to the San Diego Unified Port District, although the plan did take a tentative step forward.

In his first official pitch to the port’s Board of Commissioners, National City’s city manager, Chris Zapata, urged its members to consider allowing a new stadium to be built on 52 acres of bayfront property in National City that’s administered by the port.

National City’s formal proposal is still being formulated. But Zapata pointed to Petco Park as an example of how a stadium can reinvigorate a surrounding area. He said he hopes building a stadium in the area – currently home to a lumber yard, automobile importer and other maritime businesses – will serve as a “direct link” between downtown San Diego and Chula Vista’s waterfront, improve the quality of life for residents, spur economic development and provide new income for the cash-strapped South Bay city.

But the port’s Board of Commissioners, which asked for more information before making any decisions, was skeptical of the impact Zapata’s stadium plan might have on its mission to improve and expand maritime industries. There was little expectation that the stadium and traditional maritime activities could coexist.

Commissioner Stephen Cushman said the port has spent years fostering businesses along the National City waterfront and is just starting to see results. As part of that larger effort, the port is currently in the midst of conducting a $350,000 study of the future of maritime industries along the waterfront, he said.

“We are talking about the ability to continue our maritime vision,” Cushman said. “The only way that I would concur for this going forward is that we get to maintain our current jobs and continue to grow our maritime vision.”

While Cushman may have left the door slightly ajar to National City’s stadium dreams, other commissioners weren’t as accommodating. Commissioner Sylvia Rios said she didn’t see how the proposal could work and recommended not wasting the port’s time and resources. “You can’t serve two masters,” Rios said. “Either you’re going to serve maritime or the entertainment aspects of this. There’s just not enough land to go around.”

Commissioner Michael Bixler stressed the need for the port to profit from any resulting deal and questioned whether the Chargers were willing to commit to staying in the region through a planning process that could take years.

The commissioners didn’t take a formal vote on the presentation Tuesday. Instead, they plan to return in a month with a “game plan for establishing a position.”

The Chargers began advocating for a new stadium in 2002. In May, after failing to reach a deal with the team, the San Diego City Council permitted the Chargers to be courted by other cities within the county. The Chargers can begin negotiations with locales outside the county on Jan. 1 and could officially relocate in 2008, according to their agreement with the city.

Under the National City proposal, officials say the bill for the stadium would be financed through residential housing sales and other accompanying development, not taxpayers or team owners. But because National City lacks the space for both the stadium and the development, Zapata said he hopes to persuade the county, the city of San Diego or Chula Vista to build the related development.

“This is not a National City effort,” Zapata said. “The Chargers belong to the region.”

Officials from both the county and Chula Vista have each been holding separate meetings with Chargers officials as well. Chula Vista is hoping to woo the Chargers to a large plot of private land in the Otay Ranch development, while preliminary meetings with the county appear to have produced a number of suggestions but no tangible proposals.

National City may have a lot of convincing to do to make its plan work. The Working Waterfront Group, a collection of port tenants, business and labor groups, rebuffed Zapata’s proposal as contrary to prior promises made by National City regarding redevelopment along the bay.

Sharon Bernie-Cloward, a representative for the group, pointed to an agreement hammered out earlier this year between the National City City Council, the port district and maritime industries, which indicates that any future redevelopment in the area would, among other things, have to protect current maritime uses and enhance the working waterfront.

Maritime businesses, which contribute 38,000 jobs and nearly $6 billion annually to the region’s economy, feel that their viability is threatened by the proposed development of a stadium, Bernie-Cloward said. National City’s ambitions have made headlines in recent months and the resulting uncertainty has meant that businesses are having trouble closing long-term contracts and workers are worrying about their job security, she said.

Bernie-Cloward asked that if commissioners eventually decide to study the feasibility of building a stadium, that they also study the possibility of expanding maritime uses along the National City waterfront.

Even Robert “Dukie” Valderrama, National City’s appointed representative on the board, said he was hesitant to throw his support behind the proposal unless the city adhered to the previously established redevelopment guidelines.

“As long as they agree to these principles … I firmly endorse it,” Valderrama said.

Mark Fabiani, the Chargers’ point man for its relocation efforts, told the commissioners that the team would be happy to consider the National City site, if there’s actually a site to consider.

It’s “an idea that’s certainly in its infancy but we believe it’s an idea that deserves to be explored,” Fabiani said, urging a thorough public vetting and a proposal that works for business owners, labor groups, the port and National City. “We believe that that public process will result in good ideas moving forward and bad ideas being pushed to the side.”

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

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