Thursday, Dec. 7, 2006 | With less than a month to go before the Chargers can begin negotiating with outside suitors, the team announced Wednesday it would “politely decline” any overtures made by parties outside San Diego County come Jan. 1.

Mark Fabiani, Chargers special counsel, said the team was sufficiently optimistic about its recent negotiations with South Bay cities Chula Vista and National City to turn away potential suitors from around the nation. The team’s contract with the city of San Diego allows it to negotiate with cities outside the county beginning Jan. 1, 2007; it can relocate beginning Jan. 1, 2008.

“When cities from outside the County contact the team after January 1, 2007,” the team’s statement reads, “we will listen to what they have to say, explain our situation, tell them that we are still working hard to find a solution in San Diego County, and politely decline further discussions for the time being.”

The decision lightens the burden – temporarily, at least – of an impending deadline in the Chargers saga, as cities such as Los Angeles, Anaheim, Las Vegas and San Antonio have expressed interested in attracting either a professional football team in general or the Chargers specifically. It also shows the extent to which the two small South Bay cities, laughed off by some at first as small towns lacking the sophistication to handle professional sports, have progressed.

And, for the time being, it gives ammo to those who have fought the idea that the Chargers’ public maneuvers were part of a dog-and-pony show designed to move the team to Los Angeles or elsewhere.

Fabiani said the Chargers have been impressed with how officials from both cities have handled themselves, noting the contrast to the years the team spent dealing with the city of San Diego.

“They’ve approached it with professionalism and great energy and that’s exiting,” Fabiani said of officials from Chula Vista and National City.

The Chargers’ declaration isn’t a contract amendment, nor is it formally binding. It is simply a public statement that comes with no timetable.

“It’s a very straightforward statement about how we plan to conduct ourselves,” Fabiani said.

Fabiani declined to speculate on what would happen if someone came to the Chargers offering sizable subsidies to help them finance their long sought-after stadium. He said, given the political climate toward stadiums, any calls from outside San Diego would likely be offers to sit down and begin the talking process rather than immediate offers of financial assistance. Deals take years to work out, he said, and the team isn’t prepared to start from scratch with someone new at the moment.

“We are a long, long, long way from getting something done,” Fabiani said. “But to have someone across the table who is as excited about it as you are is encouraging.”

Mayors from San Antonio and Las Vegas have attempted to talk to the Chargers in the past while the exclusivity agreement has been in place, and the Los Angeles and Orange County area has been searching for a team since both of its teams left town in the mid-1990s. However, officials from many of those areas said as recently as October that they didn’t have immediate plans to court the team when its exclusivity-clause expired.

The team began its push for a new stadium four years ago as a rash of new football stadiums went up nationwide, providing team owners with extra revenue from luxury boxes and moveable, digital advertising. For their cooperation and financial assistance, cities were often provided promises of future Super Bowls by the National Football League.

The team’s relationship with the city of San Diego had been strained by political tensions and the fallout from an unpopular contract that came with a $78 million renovation of Qualcomm Stadium in Mission Valley in the late 1990s.

Formal talks with the city ended in January when the team called off its plans to put a stadium-and-development deal before city voters. The city allowed the team to begin speaking with parties within San Diego County in May, hoping to give a local group a head start against outside suitors before the Jan. 1 deadline.

That move appears to have worked, at least in the short term, Wednesday’s announcement suggests.

Politicians who have been involved in brokering deals applauded the announcement, but cautioned that team’s news must be matched by their own efforts.

“They had always said their intention is that, as long as there are opportunities in San Diego County, that they want stay here,” Chula Vista City Councilman John McCann said. “It’s our jobs as leaders to provide them with those opportunities.”

City Attorney Mike Aguirre, who has been a vocal skeptic of using public subsidies for a stadium, agreed.

“If they’re willing to act in good faith and look at this as a long-term project, we ought to work with them,” Aguirre said.

McCann and others said they appreciated the Chargers’ commitment to keep working within the county, but added that they didn’t feel that the announcement relieved them of any pressure.

“Our role in the county is to do anything and everything we possibly can to facilitate a deal,” said County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who favors locating a new stadium on the current Qualcomm site.

Jacob said she hasn’t let up on a goal she wanted accomplished by the end of the year, which was to have the Chargers announce the stadium location they are looking at.

“I’m still hoping by the end of the year that we’ll have something more definitive, but this definitely tells local officials here in San Diego that Chargers see it as a priority to stay,” she said.

Neither Chula Vista nor National City has put together any formal plan publicly. The Unified Port of San Diego has given National City and the Chargers the go-ahead to explore a stadium on port land in National City, although the infrastructure costs are said to be as much as $400 million higher there than other stadium sites.

Most of the focus in Chula Vista has centered on a 3,000-acre tract of land owned by residential homebuilder HomeFed Corp. in east Chula Vista. The company has hired a consultant and been holding talks. A number of other bayfront parcels of land – closer to the ocean and the region’s infrastructure backbone – are also being talked about.

“We’ve been working on this for four years,” Fabiani said. “We certainly don’t expect a city that’s new to this to find a solution in four weeks or four months. This is a process that takes a while.”

Rumors of a possible push from Oceanside have also been floated. Fabiani said the team hasn’t been approached by any officials, so it doesn’t consider Oceanside to be a “live” option.

Please contact Andrew Donohue and Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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