Saturday, Sept. 30, 2006 | When the Chargers went shopping for a new home outside the city of San Diego, many dismissed Chula Vista and National City as South Bay small-timers who would get steamrolled by the big boys.

The cities now appear to be San Diego County’s best chances for keeping the team local.

National City, in particular, turned heads because of Chris Zapata. The city manager had worked on the development of two major sports facilities while working as an administrator in another suburb – Glendale, Ariz.

Zapata’s experience of helping broker deals with the Arizona Cardinals football team and Phoenix Coyotes hockey club is stirring up the hopes that National City could be the little city to keep the Chargers from skipping town.

voiceofsandiego.org sat down with Zapata to talk about his vision for the South Bay, and why he swims in political waters, but never drinks them.

What makes National City an NFL city?

I think San Diego County is a very desirable area for the NFL. I think that’s evidenced by their willingness to have Super Bowls here. But more than anything, National City is an extension of downtown San Diego, and if you look at our proximity to downtown, it’s four miles. The proximity (from downtown) to the intersection of I-15 and I-8 (where the current stadium is located) is also four miles.

National City is really an urban community with great urban infrastructure. Certainly anybody that looks at California is desirable to see some type of water and National City is a coastal city. We’re on the bay, we’re close to downtown San Diego and we’re adjacent to a lot of amenities that are part of San Diego, so we consider ourselves to be an opportune location for a big destination, a big operation, or even an NFL franchise.

Ultimately, we’re asking a question that has three parts to it. Is there the political will to get it done, are the economics behind it, and will the Chargers buy it?

When do you hope to have a proposal put together? And, how much of this hinges on the Unified Port of San Diego’s ambitions?

A year and a half ago, we went to the port of San Diego and asked them to work with us to create a National City that was good for the region, good for the port and good for our community. To that extent, the Port Commission agreed that they would work on a planning process with us.

This involved 50 acres that they had control of near the aquatic center, near the marina … so what we did a year and a half ago set the foundation for going forward. On Sept. 5, the Port Commission in some very, very contentious environment affirmed their willingness to work [with us].

Getting through that was a very, very significant step, and trying to do that in a way that did now unnecessarily incite the longtime job-providers and businesses that were there was a real hurdle.

Now what we need to do is have a conversation with the port staff [who] has been asked by the Port Commission to come back with an analysis in 30 days, so we’re setting up a meeting with them to do exactly that.

We do not have a timetable, but we believe time is of the essence. I think the thing that we all know is that on Jan. 1, the Chargers are free to look at other cities outside of the region. We applaud the city of San Diego in terms of their willingness to free the Chargers to look within the region.

Some members of the county Board of Supervisors have gotten involved with the Chargers. It looks, at least publicly, like they’re working exclusively with the city of San Diego and not National City or Chula Vista.

We have a continuous dialogue with our supervisor, Greg Cox, and we have a wonderful relationship. About a month ago Supervisors [Ron Roberts and Dianne Jacob] came in to see the city to talk about what we were proposing and what they envisioned. That discussion was basically an information session.

We did not feel [excluded from the city-county agreement], nor did we take any offense to that. We’ve always said that this is a regional effort, and we are the blockers. It’s going to take a private-public partnership to make this happen and certainly the private sector is starting to do some things with the forming of the Chargers task force at the [San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp.]. Most importantly, we feel that the county and the city of San Diego are the biggest players in the region and need to be engaged, so we think that’s a positive step.

Are smaller cities, such as National City, equipped to deal with a demand for a public subsidy, should the Chargers make that request?

We’ve always said that there would be no public subsidy for National City. What we’ve promoted is a model of regional cooperation that would involve the Qualcomm design, which was … using the money from the development (of condos, in the case of the Chargers’ former proposal) to pay construction debt (on the stadium). That model is one that people have used. We used it in Glendale for the Glendale Arena. We called it a “community facilities district,” but essentially the development around the facility pays for the [stadium] so you don’t tap the general fund, which provides police, fire and everything else.

What we did with the Chargers is suggest that National City could host a site, if we could get the Port Commission’s concurrence, we could then do the same model, but using sites away from the stadium site itself. First we heard 166 acres (like the former Qualcomm proposal) and we never were interested. And then we heard “25-, 28-acre footprint” and we thought, “OK, we have the property that could make that work. With the Port Commission’s support we could make that work, (and) let the Chargers have to consider [developing] away from the site.”

The quote I recall from [Chargers spokesman Mark Fabiani] was that they were “intrigued” by the idea of multiple areas of development because it provides an inherent advantage. Number one: a different product. Then, different phasing and, at the same time, it would really spread out the risk across the region as opposed to just San Diego.

You were an administrator in Glendale, Ariz., home of two professional sports facilities. That’s not a major city, it’s not the brand-name city for the teams that play there. But you were able to accomplish in a mid-sized city anyway. How?

I think it’s a misnomer that you see million-populated cities holding teams. For instance, the Dallas Cowboys are in Irving, Texas. The Detroit Pistons are in Auburn Hills, Mich. And in the case of Glendale, you have the [Arizona Cardinals football club and Phoenix Coyotes hockey team].

We believe the San Diego Chargers are the San Diego Chargers, and the fact that they might be located in a smaller city is something that is happening across the country. I think what we would say is that we have enough experience on our staff to really understand what is involved with locating a professional franchise. I was a deputy city manager in Glendale. There was the pursuit of the Arizona Cardinal facility. While that was happening, there was a deal struck with the Phoenix Coyotes to build the Glendale Arena, which is an 18,000-seat venue. At the same time, we have the state of Arizona looking to site a $455 million, multipurpose stadium that could house the Fiesta Bowl and the Cardinals, as well be used year-round … and that landed in Glendale.

Leaving the city in 2004, what was exciting to me is that the city leaders had leveraged that into a Super Bowl, a National Hockey League All-Star Game, and also the Fiesta Bowl of the Bowl Championship Series [for college football]. So that was exciting to see that from the standpoint of somebody working on it. I wasn’t the point person for it, the city manager is certainly the guy who made the deals there with the mayor and council, but I was fortunate to be involved in certain facets of it and understand how sports facilities benefit a community and understand, certainly, the hype.

When you talk about the hype of bringing this, does that necessarily mean dollars? Does that necessarily mean that everything is good? No, it doesn’t. So I think my viewpoint is realistic, I understand the economics behind it. They are businesses, they are big businesses, there are challenges associated with game day that cities confront. What I’ve tried to say is that besides the experience I’ve has with those franchises, our police chief, Adolfo Gonzales, was the assistant police chief in the city of San Diego and he was there when they had Super Bowls. He was there for Sundays. His experience for knowing what is required from a public safety standpoint is really significant.

Another one that is significant is our fire chief, Rod Juniel, who was the fire chief for the city of Denver and is a former fire marshal. He’s dealt with four professional sports and three franchise venues. Just within National City’s small organization, there are three key staffers that have had extensive dealing with professional sports.

Our financial advisor is currently the financial advisor to the Dallas Cowboys … we have since added [former San Diego Assistant City Attorney] Les Girard as a special advisor. He worked on Padres and Chargers stuff for the city of San Diego. We have a good team together and I think we have a great location.

Did the new sports facilities change the name ID or the branding of Glendale?

One of the things that is hard for people to grasp, unless they lived it, is that there are always regional biases. Certainly in Arizona, in the Phoenix metropolitan area, there was a regional bias. There was Tempe and Scottsdale, and then there was the [Glendale area] …

What I saw when I came here was that there were some very similar circumstances: South Bay to North County. Certainly the South Bay’s time is coming because it has tremendous infrastructure, there’s a lot of activity because of the border, and all of the sudden you have people willing to do some things that are aggressive and that are visionary in Chula Vista and National City because they want to say things get better here.

I think the Gaylord project is a great example of it. I think our push to work on the Chargers with this thing is an example of it. The region is now waking up to the South Bay. I think that if Qualcomm can’t happen – although we agree that Qualcomm is the best site – then the South Bay is the next viable alternative. Because, what we see is that the South Bay as a region is maturing. We have some major development in Chula Vista, including the Gaylord project (on the bayfront), which is a phenomenal location for the infrastructure in National City.

It becomes a place where they may work, they may invest, and they may live. It does a lot in that regard. But certainly for property owners, what happened in Glendale with those projects is that if you own land around those facilities and those developments, the value of your land appreciated. If you are a city trying to recruit a hotel, it went from a three-star to a four-star. If there was a restaurant that might have been an Applebee’s, it now becomes a Morton’s.

What we’ve said is that we have a tremendous amount of restaurants in our cities, we have the biggest car dealership engine in Southern California, and people coming through our city could be good for them as well. That’s the good stuff that goes with it.

Lastly, I wanted to ask you about Mayor Nick Inzunza’s statement that he wanted to encourage National City to become a sanctuary city, where city funds would not be spent trying to deter illegal immigration.

Let me just say this. As a city manager, you are around politics all the time.

That is a very political question, and as a city manager, I swim in the political waters all the time, but I try not to drink them.

– Interview by EVAN McLAUGHLIN

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