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Wednesday, April 11, 2007 | Over the last couple of weeks, the Centre City Development Corp., the organization in charge of implementing San Diego’s downtown redevelopment dreams, has run a not-so-subtle campaign to convince the public that it simply doesn’t have all the money everyone knows that it has.
For several years, Councilwoman Donna Frye has tried to convince someone, anyone, to look at what kinds of funds CCDC could provide to help the city pay for things like police, fire and other services. After all, it’s not like downtown doesn’t utilize those services.
But she wanted a straight, perhaps, early repayment of the city’s long-ago loan that helped start CCDC.
This year, however, Frye, Peter Q. Davis, the former chairman of CCDC, and Carl DeMaio, a conservative activist, have been talking about an idea that is undeniably rational and worthy of every resident’s support: CCDC should take over the payments on the loans the city took out to fund the ballpark and the convention center.
In their effort to persuade residents that they don’t really have money, CCDC leaders trotted out a figure: $1 billion. This was, they said, the amount of money the organization thought it would have available in coming years to spend on downtown projects.
And then they trotted out a list of those projects. Parks, fire stations, a nice pedestrian bridge, a new fabulous central library.
The message: We’ve spent everything. We have no more money. If you take money from us, we’ll have to cut one of these planned projects.
Yes, indeed. Something will have to go.
Drop the library.
The cost estimates for new construction of the library are 18 months old. In that same time, CCDC has had to double the budget of another major downtown project — the pedestrian bridge — because of the cost of concrete and stainless steel. A new estimate for the library’s construction cost, however, is not available.
Even those old, optimistic, estimates envisioned philanthropists contributing $85 million to the library’s construction. Despite pleas and promises of big announcements, only a tiny fraction of that was ever pledged.
The myth of the library still lives on if only in CCDC’s budget and in the editorial pages of the Union-Tribune, which ordinarily decries government spending on luxuries with a vigor untamed by reason.
In the reality-based world, though, city’s true needs can be easily recognized: more swimming pool and library hours, street repairs, new fire stations, police officers and a list of crumbling facilities and infrastructure that is daunting to anyone who glances at it.
Yet, every year, the city spends millions paying off the loans it took out to build Petco Park and the convention center. In 2006, these two costs added up to more than $25 million.
Mayor Jerry Sanders’ financial team successfully refinanced the city’s debt on the ballpark. Next year, the lower interest rate on those bonds will make the payments much easier to swallow. But as the mayor prepares to roll out his budget proposal for next year, he and the City Council should force CCDC to take over payments on the ballpark and convention center. A move like that — and the more than $20 million it would immediately free up for the city’s general fund — would inject the city with the kinds of funds that, if used properly, could immediately impact our quality of life.
Plus, it is a natural fit. Both the convention center and the ballpark have been important factors in downtown’s phenomenal growth. CCDC’s budget is built on that growth. The whole purpose, in fact, of CCDC is to finance and facilitate development like that. It’s only logical, and legal, that it use any money it has to pay for the construction that spurs development downtown.
CCDC leaders realize that. They declined to respond to a request for comment. They know that there are no legal or rational obstacles to them taking over the payments for these two facilities at least until either the debts are retired or CCDC goes out of business. They know that it’s an attractive option given the city’s financial difficulties.
They and a few others just want a library.
Some might decry that only a city with misplaced values and skewed priorities would choose to pay for a baseball field over a library. Unfortunately for them, that choice was made several years ago by city leaders who either declined to acknowledge that they were doing so, or were too preoccupied with their dreams of sitting in the skyboxes to notice what they were doing.
And don’t worry about CCDC’s budget. It had the room to offer its president, Nancy Graham, a $65,000 bonus this year. That could’ve paid for the annual salary of one of the hundreds of people Sanders is planning to lay off over at the city this year.
Truth is, downtown has benefited significantly from the development that the ballpark brought. It has, however, relied on the whole city to protect it, to put out its fires, to clean up its messes, to fix the streets its residents use. The city’s general fund has long done more than its part to pay for the development of downtown.
If we are to continue redeveloping the city’s urban core, we may not be able to successfully argue that it should hand over its funds to save the entire city.
But we must insist that it help pay off the projects most dear to its mission.