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The Union-Tribune’s Matt Hall broke the news Tuesday morning that Mayor Jerry Sanders was going on a three-city tour of places in the nation that have recently managed to build a stadium or arena.

Sanders will be visiting Denver, Kansas City and Indianapolis. (All of which are homes to bitter rivals of the Chargers, by the way. Maybe that’s the point.)

Hall quoted the mayor’s stated goals (emphasis mine):

Sanders said the trip “is about learning what has worked in other cities and what hasn’t worked … and how you put together a plan so that we can move forward on the ballot in November 2012 with an issue to take to the voters.”

Probably a good idea. But let’s not make this into too big of a mystery. What has worked in other cities is really quite simple: taxes.

The three cities all have one thing in common: They each passed a special tax, or portfolio of tax hikes, to pay for their new facilities.

Let’s review. In Denver, faced with the unconscionable threat that the beloved Broncos would leave town, voters in 1998 approved a one-cent sales tax on every $10 of retail goods purchased. But it wasn’t only the voters in the city of Denver who approved it. Six counties pitched in. Now, the Metropolitan Football Stadium District, comprised of all the counties, owns most of the new stadium.

Two things to consider: First, it helped that the Broncos had just won the Super Bowl and were undefeated when the vote came around.

Second, it wasn’t just that tax that made the stadium possible. It was an earlier one too. In 1990, even though they didn’t have a baseball team, voters in Denver approved a one-cent tax on every $10 of retail goods purchased to build a new baseball ballpark: A facility that helped transform Denver’s Lower Downtown, or Lo-Do, into a vibrant neighborhood. Mayor Sanders plans to tour it.


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But get this: The revenue from that tax came in so fast that they were able to pay the debt from the ballpark off earlier and voters allowed them to transfer the tax over to the new football stadium.

That tax is scheduled to expire this year.

That’s how it’s done, folks. If you want a stadium, and you want to use hundreds of millions in public money to do it, then don’t be shy. Make the case for it, raise the money, invest it, and before you know it, the pain’s over.

In San Diego, however, we face a problem Colorado doesn’t. No it’s not apathy. It’s not that we’re more conservative or liberal. It’s not that we don’t like football. It’s the single most important fact every Chargers fan, and frankly, every resident, should understand about local government in California: You have to get two-thirds of voters to approve of a special tax to build something like, say, a new stadium. (Let’s try to forget for a moment that the hoteliers have figured out how to raise the city’s hotel room tax without a vote.)

In Colorado, the voter base in this six-county Denver metro area passed the tax for the new football stadium with 57 percent support. That would have been a failure here.

That’s why it’s so hard to build stadiums in California. Anything we want to do will smash into this roadblock, not just stadiums.

How about the other two cities the mayor is visiting?

In Kansas City, he’s going to look at the Sprint Center. The same company that is hoping to build the stadium in Los Angeles built this arena in Kansas City. Of course it needed public money. And it got it with increased taxes on hotel rooms and rental cars. Guess what percentage of voters approved it? Yep, 57 percent. Again, that would have been a failed vote here.

We’ve had plenty of tax measures go down in flames in this town even though they got that much support or more.

Indianapolis? Sanders wants to visit Lucas Oil stadium. There, they passed a plethora of tax hikes to fund the facility. They actually taxed food.

There’s an idea: build stadiums on our appetites! Surefire! And then sell food at the stadium! Genius.

A lot of people were surprised this weekend to see former City Attorney Mike Aguirre put this piece in the Union Tribune.

I agree. It was a bit startling to see the longtime Chargers nemesis say that we should do “all we can” to keep the Chargers here. But when he wasn’t digressing into toxic public rhetoric, he always revolted against the same thing a lot of us did: The idea you can build a stadium, spend millions in taxpayer funds, lay the burden on just one city in the region and not raise any money to actually fund it.

His suggestion that we form a regional “sports authority” is exactly along the lines of what these other cities did: They saw it as a regional goal. And then they raised the money to do it.

With San Diego stretched as it is, it’s a folly to think hundreds of millions of dollars could be magically freed up and, even if it could, that it shouldn’t go to our other pressing needs. But if the region does want to make an investment like this, it’s welcome to. Raise a tax.

It’ll just need a lot more than 57 percent of voters to approve. And no matter how many cities the mayor visits, that basic fact will not change.

That is, it will not change until the people who want to build all of these magnificent structures with public dollars — these people, many of whom are Republican — realize they will need to change the law to do it.

We’re done pretending it can be done for free and then painfully dealing with the reality it cannot.

You can contact me directly at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!):

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Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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