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Chargers Continue Their Five-Year Quest For New Stadium in North, South County

Given the talent and last year’s league-best 14-2 regular-season record, the expectations for this year’s San Diego Chargers, who opened the season Sept. 9, may be unfair.

Nothing less than another divisional title and playoff berth will do, and many fans, as well as football savants, give the team a good shot at making a second Super Bowl appearance.

While visions of glory dance in fans’ heads, prospects for finding a new football-only stadium aren’t as bright.

It’s been five years since the Chargers made known their wishes for a new home to replace 40-year-old Qualcomm Stadium, and in many ways, the response from the team’s landlord has been worse than that of the previous mayoral administration, said Mark Fabiani, the team’s special counsel and point person for the proposed project.

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“We believe the Qualcomm site in theory is the best site for the stadium, but I don’t believe it’s possible to get anything done with the city,” Fabiani said.

Thwarted by real or perceived threats of litigation from City Attorney Michael Aguirre, lack of interest on the part of Mayor Jerry Sanders, and the economic malaise at City Hall, the Chargers have turned their attention to the north in Oceanside and the south in Chula Vista. The two cities have expressed interest in hosting a football-only stadium and consented to studying whether the project is feasible.

The concept differs in the cities, but both involve some type of public/private partnership to build an estimated $800 million stadium, and adjacent commercial and/or residential development.

It’s not that the Chargers aren’t approached by folks interested in the team’s current home field in Mission Valley. Not that long ago, Fabiani met with a person he described as “a major developer from Orange County,” who inquired about the site. After providing background on the team’s quest and what could happen to any negotiated deal involving the city, the developer told Fabiani “to forget it,” he said.

“Clearly, the dysfunction at City Hall is a major deterrent to developers,” Fabiani said.


Waiting For Answers

Shortly, the Chargers said they hope to get answers on which of the two cities offers the best site for a new field. An analysis of sites in Chula Vista is done and should be made public in a week. Fabiani said the study narrowed five or six sites to two, one within a mile of the Arco Olympic Training Center in the eastern part of the city and another on the bay front now occupied by a power plant.

The site near the training center has more land , 500 acres, compared with 115 acres where LS Power Generation operates the South Bay Power Plant. The Olympic training site is zoned to accommodate a future university village that would include satellite campuses for San Diego State University and other local colleges. But the site could also accommodate commercial, retail and residential development. The downside is its remote location and lack of mass transit.

The power plant just south of Chula Vista Marina and near a planned convention center and hotel is to be demolished by 2010, but before that can happen, an alternative plant must be constructed. The bay front site would trigger a barrage of environmental and regulatory issues, Fabiani said.

“And because it’s on the bay, it’s in the (California) Coastal Commission zone,” he added, which is always a hurdle.

In Oceanside, a draft report on a 73-acre site now used as a municipal golf course is completed, but needs tweaking. The city wants to build office buildings on the site, but there’s doubt that it is large enough to accommodate both a stadium and commercial development, Fabiani said.


Trying To Keep The Team Here

Independent of the Chargers seeking answers about sites in two vying cities are the efforts of several high powered businesspeople who are advocating various plans to keep the Chargers here before it’s too late to do so.

Fabiani said he’s met with such business luminaries as Malin Burnham, a retired developer and banker; Ted Roth, an investment banker; Tom Wornham, chairman of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp.; and Herb Klein, former editor of the Copley Newspapers, to listen to ideas.

These are people he’s talked to for years, and heard pretty much the same plans, all of which involve working out something with the city of San Diego.

Under the circumstances, that fact makes pursuing any deal highly unlikely, he said. “We never discourage anyone from working with us on this, but we also want to be candid with them,” he said.

Roth, managing director for Roth Capital Partners in San Diego, said the Chargers view negotiating a deal with the city “as a lost cause and waste of time because of (City Attorney) Mike Aguirre.”

The Chargers’ lack of interaction with San Diego city officials and apparent wooing of two smaller cities is a smoke screen for the owners’ real intentions, packing up as soon as they can arrange a sweetheart stadium deal with Los Angeles or other city desperate for a professional football team, critics say.

But if that were true, then the team would be already making tracks out of San Diego, rather than spending millions to reach an agreement, Fabiani said.

Under its current lease, the team can talk to other cities outside San Diego County, but has promised not to do so. It can also leave the county after the end of the 2008 season, but would have to pay off the remainder of bonds issued in 1997 for expanding Qualcomm Stadium. The balance today is $56 million.


Why Would They Leave?

Len Simon, a San Diego attorney who served on a citizens task force regarding the Chargers’ proposed stadium, said he believes team owners when they say they want to remain in the area.

“They’re sold out, and have been sold out for a while,” he said of the success the Chargers now enjoy at the gate. “Dean (Spanos, the Chargers’ president) lives in San Diego, his kids live in San Diego. I don’t know why they would want to move.”

Los Angeles isn’t as quick and easy solution many think it is, Simon said.

“They have worse political problems there, and look what happened the last time,” he said. Several years ago, when the city was supposedly in line to get a new franchise from the National Football League, two private groups vying for the rights lost out to Houston.

As to what happens if the Chargers can’t strike a deal with either Chula Vista or Oceanside, Fabiani said he’d rather not talk about it.

“We just hope not to get to that point,” he said.

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