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For the Chargers, It Could Be 4th Down and Two Stadium Sites to Go

The San Diego Chargers made some progress last year in their quest to find a site for a state-of-the-art football stadium, narrowing their search to two sites in Chula Vista.

While the idea of the Chargers pulling up stakes at the 41-year-old Qualcomm Stadium seems absurd to many fans, the team’s spokesman says the organization is focused on getting something done at either a site on Chula Vista’s bay front or one in the city’s eastern hinterlands near the U.S. Olympic Training Center.

Both have their good points and bad points, but the reality is the team isn’t looking anywhere else.

“There is no plan B,” said Mark Fabiani, the Chargers’ special counsel. “This is what it’s down to in San Diego County, down to these two sites.”

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Fabiani says after six years of trying to get a new stadium, 2008 is a decisive year, one in which the team’s ownership determines whether it can get something done in the county or not.

Since January 2007, the Chargers have had the right to entertain offers from other cities, but promised not to talk to other parties until they determined if they could find a site in San Diego County. At least two cities, Las Vegas and San Antonio, have made some overtures. Los Angeles, which has been without a professional football team since 1995, is often regarded as a possible new home.

Last year, the Chargers had some discussions with the cities of Oceanside and National City about a stadium, but ultimately, neither city opted to pursue the project.


Bolting From Mission Valley

While there are problems associated with each of the proposed sites, the team’s path out of Mission Valley appears certain.

Getting anything done within the city of San Diego is not possible when you have a mayor, Jerry Sanders, who is indifferent about the project, and a city attorney, Michael Aguirre, who is openly hostile, Fabiani says.

While there have been attempts by small groups of local business leaders to arrange an agreement between the parties, the escalating costs for a stadium, combined with the leadership vacuum at City Hall, assures there is little chance the Chargers can remain in San Diego, Fabiani says.

“A lot of people forgot we even worked on that plan, and I have to remind them we did work on it for four years from 2002 to 2006,” Fabiani said.

The Chargers’ revised plan for the Qualcomm site entailed building a $450 million stadium, along with some 6,000 condominiums, a hotel, restaurants and other commercial space. The team would pay the entire costs of the stadium and infrastructure improvements. In return, the city would give the team 60 acres of the land for the commercial part of the project.

Now the estimate on a state-of-the-art stadium is between $800 million and $1 billion, and the market for condos has dried up, effectively killing the plan, Fabiani says.

A few leaders say that they are supporting the Chargers while they investigate the two prospective sites, and hope other governmental agencies can do the same.


The Power To Get Things Done?

By forming a joint powers authority involving Chula Vista, the city and county of San Diego, and the San Diego Unified Port District, a project that includes commercial development would have a much greater chance of succeeding, some say.

“The development doesn’t have to take place at the same place where the stadium is,” said Ted Roth, managing director of Newport Beach-based Roth Capital Partners LLC and former chairman of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.

To help move the project along, the team held a series of town hall meetings in Chula Vista last year, and presented its findings to city leaders. Fabiani says the team will meet publicly with the entire City Council this month, and offer to pay for a financial study on how to finance the project.

Observers question Chula Vista’s ability to accommodate a deal with the Chargers, especially in view of financial problems that forced the city to cut 113 full-time positions in 2007.

As it did with an earlier site selection report in Chula Vista and Oceanside, the team is proposing to pay for the study. The former studies cost $220,000 each.

An early consensus points to the bay front site, mainly because the property is already in the city’s hands, the community is intent on getting rid of an unattractive power plant, and its proximity to a proposed hotel and convention center by Nashville, Tenn.-based Gaylord Entertainment.

The city’s bay front site is far more complex, however, and the presence of the South Bay Power Plant triggers replacement issues as well as review by a host of governmental agencies.

Building a stadium at the other site, in the eastern part of the city, would be simpler to achieve, but a multi-university campus is part of long-range plans for the site. Also, except for the recently opened state Route 125 connector, the site has limited freeway access and no mass transit.


Not Leaving Anytime Soon

Whatever is decided, the Chargers aren’t likely to vacate the region anytime soon, even though the team can legally do so. Should they go, the Chargers would have to pay off the remainder of bonds issued in 1997 to pay for the expansion and other improvements to Qualcomm Stadium, a balance of about $56 million. However, after the 2010 season, that sum drops to $24 million, according to the team’s lease with the city.

Fabiani and team owners, the Spanos family, have consistently said they want to remain here.

As it stands now, the Chargers say they are encouraged by what they see and hear from Chula Vista leaders and residents.

“People are open-minded, but they have a lot of questions, and won’t make up their minds until they get those questions answered,” Fabiani said.

The key questions most people raise are how would the stadium be financed, and how does the city replace the energy being generated by the power plant, assuming it decides to build the stadium at the bay front site.

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