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Like most native San Diegans, I grew up a Padres and Chargers fan, attended football games at Balboa Stadium but never, to my great disappointment, a Padres game at Lane Field. Later on, I’d take my son Arthur and daughter Emilie to watch the Padres and Chargers at the Jack Murphy Stadium (the “Murph”).
On Dec. 22, 1996, a rainy Sunday, Emilie and I watched the Chargers defeat the Denver Broncos in the last Chargers game of the season. Little did I know a few days later I would become embroiled in the “ticket guarantee” battle.
Beginning in 1997, San Diego city officials guaranteed a paid attendance of 60,000 general admission tickets for all Chargers home games for 10 years, with the Chargers having the right to set ticket prices.
My dear friend and former City Council member (now a deputy city attorney) Bruce Henderson asked me to represent the 60,000 San Diegans who had signed the petition to stop the ticket guarantee. There was a court battle, widespread civic strife and 10 years of financial damage done to the city when it had to cough up millions of dollars to buy thousands of unsold tickets.
The Padres’ drive for a new stadium started in the aftermath of the ticket guarantee dispute.
The Padres wanted a new stadium but they didn’t want a repeat of the civic conflict we had just gone through. While the Chargers had used pressure and threats, Padres CEO Larry Lucchino used a good old grassroots campaign to win support. Lucchino reached out to those of us who had opposed the ticket guarantee, asking me to serve as co-chair, and tried to shape the proposal for a downtown ballpark that would advance economic goals for the blighted East Village.
Lucchino and his enlisted team brought the community together to pass the ballpark proposal – Prop. C – with 60 percent support from voters. The Padres taking us to the World Series didn’t hurt. I must confess I loved the idea of being able to take my family to a downtown stadium to see the Padres play, like my brothers and uncles did at Lane Field.
Former U-T reporter Don Bauder’s warnings that city officials would not hold the Padres to their Prop. C promises proved true. The Padres’ owner also reneged on the promise to build 2,500 new hotel rooms, and pressured Mayor Dick Murphy to agree to infuse millions of city funds into the project in violation of the voter-approved agreement.
This diversion started a chain reaction: The city moved millions from the required pension contribution. The city’s pension debt was concealed, there was securities fraud in connection with city issued bonds, and ultimately Murphy resigned after Time magazine found him among the worst of America’s city mayors.
From this we can learn that it is possible to work out sports stadium deals, but they have to be based on sound math, financial capacity and mutual benefit.
We need to work together with our limited resources to make Qualcomm Stadium meet NFL standards, like the Green Bay Packers have with Lambeau Field.
We need to treat the Q as any other depreciating capital asset by adopting a fully funded renovation and maintenance plan. The community, fans and the Chargers should be consulted for input on renovations and improvements. We need to stop the policy of invited waste, where the Chargers allow the stadium to deteriorate in order to argue a new one is needed and city officials, facing budget shortfalls, acquiesce.
The Chargers need to take a page from the Padres’ grassroots playbook and stop using their superior market power muscle to force us to spend money we do not have.
Voice of San Diego has documented many other priorities such as roads, parks, libraries, a storm drain system. We need the Chargers to be a part of the solution to our community problems, and not just another powerful player looking for a handout.
Mike Aguirre is a former city attorney. Aguirre’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.