With a ho-hum answer to a basic question, Fred Maas left me awestruck.
Someone in the audience at the July 15 Spirit of the Barrio luncheon asked about parking for the downtown stadium/convention center annex proposed by Chargers Chairman Dean Spanos. After all, the ballot initiative, officially Measure C, mentions only 1,300 spaces, compared with the 19,000 at Qualcomm Stadium. “(Architect) Jeffrey (Pollack) and I have been working it seems like almost every day on a bunch of solutions to try to address some of these things,” replied Maas, the front man for Spanos Stadium.
His words did not impress me nearly as much as his demeanor. He wanted to persuade people to vote for a 61,500-seat stadium with less parking than many regional shopping centers, yet managed to keep a straight face the entire time. Bravo!
Once the glow of his performance wore off, the concerned citizen in me came to see the parking issue as a symbol of how much is wrong with the Spanos stadium initiative, and how badly it would damage San Diego. Slogging through the 119-page initiative, plus the Chargers’ 33-page response to a lengthy list of questions posed by Mayor Kevin Faulconer, led me to two basic conclusions.
First, hotel tax money can be used for anything, so every dollar turned over to Spanos is a dollar that can’t be used to whittle down San Diego’s Himalayan-sized mountain of unmet needs, including street repairs and infrastructure improvements.
The message Spanos, Maas and Mark Fabiani (yes, he’s still around if well hidden) peddle is that visitors would pay the $1.1 billion of room tax money that would subsidize the convadium. As a result, for locals, it would be free, FREE, FREE!!! If that sounds like an infomercial for the latest useless gadget, it should.
Currently, revenues generated by San Diego’s 10.5 percent hotel tax are spread all over the city, paying for everything from lifeguards to libraries in all of our neighborhoods. Money siphoned to Spanos would be lost to repaving those moonscapes we call streets, bolstering public safety, replacing vintage water mains, fully funding after-school programs, repairing or replacing the nearly two-thirds of the city’s motor fleet rated substandard or outright junk, and the list goes on.
In addition, hacking away all the dense legal language surrounding Measure C reveals the core deal: Give Spanos more than $1.1 billion of our tax money and, in return, we get a black hole and the largest single debt in San Diego’s 247-year history. While managing to address precisely such weighty concerns as how many fireworks shows are allowed in any one year, Measure C leaves almost every important detail blank.
What would the convadium look like? We don’t know; we’ll find out after the election. How much would it cost? Don’t know; after the election. After all, you can’t estimate a project’s cost without blueprints.
Who would pay for a freeway connection and how many homes or businesses would have to be bulldozed for it? Don’t know; after the election. Who would build a new trolley station designed for big crowds, like the one at Qualcomm? Don’t know, after the election. Where would the bus yard go? Who would be responsible for the toxic waste cleanup? Don’t know; after the election.
Promoting an initiative that looks more like a wall of randomly placed sticky notes than a cohesive project raises the mystery of why so much heavy breathing emanates from the Spanos crew.
It can’t be to satisfy convention planners. Comic-Con has been very clear. It wants a larger convention center under one roof, not a dismembered annex several blocks away, which is what Spanos is asking voters to approve. The Spanos camp has talked of putting a Comic-Con museum in the convadium. I guess it could easily be converted into a Comic-Con memorial, celebrating the days when it was the crown jewel of San Diego’s convention industry before it left town.
It can’t be convenience. When dueling the Rams last year for the right to move to L.A., Spanos and Fabiani pushed their Carson site as having much better freeway access than their rival’s in Inglewood. Fans placed a premium on easy access, they said. Yet when the NFL owners sent Spanos and Fabiani back to San Diego, they spurned the Qualcomm site bordered by two freeways, an extra-wide Friars Road and with a specially built trolley station, for a tiny corner of downtown with none of these people movers.
The answer to the mystery lies in three clauses of Measure C.
The first caps the Spanos obligation at $350 million and allows him to count toward his total things such as naming rights and personal seat licenses, meaning Spanos may have to contribute nothing from his or the Chargers’ checkbook. Second, Spanos need cover the cost overruns only on the stadium portion of the project. Third, he is not required to pay for any new parking or traffic improvements.
Allowing Spanos to shift budget-busting bills to San Diego taxpayers gives him a financial insurance policy that he could not have with just a stand-alone stadium.
Put the three together and you have the biggest shutout in San Diego history: taxpayers, $1.1 billion; Spanos, $0. Spanos wins.
Measure C should be renamed the Spanos Wealth Protection & Enhancement Initiative, and then we could watch Maas come up with a perfumed response without ever cracking a wry smile.
Tim O’Reiley is a retired newspaper reporter and native San Diegan living in Mission Hills.