COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | JOHN PATRICK FORD

Stadium debate back on the table

The debate over a new stadium is heating up again, ignited by Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s State of the City speech. Neither side of the issue was pleased.

Why is there a conflict between two groups that either support a new stadium to keep the Chargers in town or oppose any public funding to replace a stadium that many consider adequate with a face-lift?

Well, the pros say the mayor was not assertive enough in his proposal by shoving the project into the hands of yet another study committee. The place and funding of a new stadium has been studied to death without resolution for more than a decade. Can a new group do any better?

In a surprising response from the Chargers’ point man, Mark Fabiani, the mayor’s strategy to move ahead again was blasted as another stall. Even more criticized was the proposal to combine a stadium plan with Convention Center expansion, if a certain individual was involved in the planning process.

That seemed rather short-sighted if the team’s owner really wants to stay in San Diego but wants a new stadium. So who is this person that could drive the Chargers into the arms of a Los Angeles group proposing to build a state-of-the-art sports and cultural center on the site of the former Hollywood Park racetrack?

Fabiani’s nemesis is none other than Steve Cushman, a professional ombudsman and City Hall junkie whom the mayor had appointed to chair the Convention Center expansion group.

As a long-time confidant of former mayors and city leaders, Cushman has served an unprecedented three terms as chairman of the San Diego Unified Port District. This was just one of Cushman’s civic endeavors that rankled various groups competing for influence.

With this background and experience in civic affairs, why should Fabiani object to Cushman’s cunning expertise in juggling political hot potatoes? As Shakespeare so aptly wrote, “Thereby hangs a tale.”

It seems that the Chargers might favor a joint project for a stadium and extended Convention Center downtown. Fabiani’s objection concerns Cushman being in charge of the convention center expansion that must coordinate with the stadium plan to sell to the public. That means Cushman is on the team, despite the mayor’s denial of an overlap of influence in the two plans.

Cushman was the fearless warrior who promoted last year’s failed Convention Center plan that depended on a special hotel room tax for financing. A court scuttled the concept, saying it was an illegal tax that voters hadn’t approved. Cushman’s political leadership style apparently did not impress Chargers management, to paraphrase a U-T San Diego editorial.

Are the nine premier community leaders on the new task force the right people to evaluate the best location and city benefit of a fiscal commitment?

Len Simon, a law professor and sports law attorney who was on the 2003 task force, says the study group should be professionals, paid for their time and expertise. Real estate, investment banking and municipal finance are the key elements for a solution to relocate or to keep the present stadium.

Critics of the stadium task force claim that holding closed sessions is not legal under the Brown Act. The mayor defends his decision on the basis that this is an informational project and not a community plan, but backed down to pressure to open one meeting to the public.

Meanwhile, the University of San Diego hosted a county economic roundtable that weighed in on the potential benefit to the area around a new stadium. Nobody endorsed the scheme if public money was needed. Marney Cox, chief economist for San Diego Association of Governments, claimed that San Diego gave up a lot when it invested $400 million in Petco Park.

It will take a few years to evaluate whether Petco Park was the spark that fueled new development in East Village, providing construction jobs and higher property tax values. Will a new stadium promise any economic benefit except to the Chargers?

Another Port District storm on the horizon for later comment is the giant Ferris wheel proposal. Can you imagine our world-class waterfront scenery dominated by a huge steel wheel, completely inconsistent with its neighbors in San Diego and Coronado? It seems out of context with tidelands use and marine aesthetics.

Personally, I liked the old waterfront environment of the tuna era with the fishermen working on their nets and boats when the fleet was in. Let’s keep a maritime setting for our harbor and have the amusement park in Mission Beach.

Several unsolicited proposals have been submitted, including an alternative revolving tower accessed by spiraling gondolas. When the port commissioners get around to considering the merits of any huge steel structure looming over the harbor landscape, I hope the Coastal Commission will have enough sense not to turn our valuable waterfront into an amusement park — or even a stadium.


Ford is a freelance writer in San Diego. He can be reached at johnpatrick.ford@sddt.com.

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