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Chargers’ Preseason Kicks Off Thursday; Team Still Maneuvering For New Stadium

Credit: Chris Carlson/Associated Press

The Dallas Cowboys kick off to the San Diego Chargers during the first quarter of an NFL football game Sept. 29, 2013, at Qualcomm Stadium.

Aired 8/7/14 on KPBS News.

The Spanos family, owners of the San Diego Chargers, started asking the city for a new stadium in 2002. And like the team's quest for a Super Bowl title, the desire for a stadium remains unfulfilled.

The San Diego Chargers open their preseason Thursday night with more on their minds than playing the Dallas Cowboys.

For 12 years, the Spanos family — the team’s owners — have sought a replacement for Qualcomm Stadium, and like the team's quest for a Super Bowl title, it remains a dream.

Are the team's aspirations for a venue gaining steam or stalling with new San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer? Does the incessant chatter about a team filling the Los Angeles void help or hurt the Chargers locally?

Good questions with no clear answers.

"The Chargers want to stay in San Diego, San Diegans want the Chargers to stay here and I want the Chargers to stay here,'' Faulconer said in a recent interview. "There has been a lot of back and forth over the years, but I'm trying to take a fresh start and open perspective. Put everything on the table and come up with a plan that ultimately San Diegans will support. I think that's the objective, and one we should be very open about and work together on.''

Revolving Mayors

Since 2002, when the Spanos family asked San Diego city leaders to build a new stadium for the Chargers, the city has had seven mayors. Here’s the list:

Dick Murphy, resigned in 2005. (He is a lawyer and now retired from politics.)

Michael Zucchet, the deputy mayor who briefly succeeded Murphy. Zucchet was under federal indictment at the time and quickly stepped aside. (The federal charges didn’t stick and he’s now the head of the city’s largest labor union.)

Toni Atkins, became acting mayor in 2005 when Murphy resigned and Zucchet stepped aside. (She’s now the speaker of the California Assembly.)

Jerry Sanders, elected mayor in 2005 to finish Murphy’s term. (He left office in 2013 and is now the head of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.)

Bob Filner, elected mayor in 2012. (He resigned nine months into his term after being accused of sexual harassment and battery. He pleaded guilty last year to felony false imprisonment and two misdemeanor battery counts. He is on probation.)

Todd Gloria, became acting mayor when Filner resigned in 2013. (He’s back to being the City Council president.)

Kevin Faulconer, elected mayor this year to finish Filner’s term.

Mark Fabiani, the Chargers' lead counsel and chief spokesman on the stadium issue since 2002, said credibility in the Mayor's Office under Faulconer is helpful.

"We've had seven mayors in the last 10 years, so political stability has not been the hallmark of our effort,” Fabiani said.

He said the team has “established a good working relationship” with Faulconer’s staff, and that’s a positive.

"At the same time, we're back to square one as far as ideas. We've been told to look at everything, even things that have been rejected before,'' Fabiani said.

What stadium sites have been looked at and what were the costs?

In 2002, the team pitched redeveloping the 166-acre Qualcomm Stadium site in Mission Valley, and the next year revealed a $400 million stadium proposal. The deal called for the Spanos family to pay for the stadium and in return get 60 acres of the site to develop into housing, a hotel, offices and retail shops. It didn’t happen.

Since then, the team has looked at all sorts of locations in San Diego County, including in Escondido, Oceanside and Chula Vista. The Chargers keep coming back to San Diego.

The team’s last proposal was for a $1 billion multi-use stadium that would be part of a $520 million expansion of the San Diego Convention Center. That idea got nixed last fall when the California Coastal Commission approved the Convention Center expansion without the stadium. And even if it had been OK’d, the Convention Center project is in jeopardy because an appeals court has rejected the hotel-room tax that would have paid for it.

Fabiani hopes the Chargers’ idea for a football stadium in the East Village near Petco Park might get renewed life.

This is the latest idea for paying for the $1 billion stadium: $400 million from the Spanos family and their investors; a $200 million loan from the NFL; and $400 million from the city. The city’s share would be paid by leasing or selling the city-owned Qualcomm Stadium or the Valley View Casino Center (formerly the Sports Arena) in the Midway District.

Richard Rider, chairman of the San Diego Tax Fighters, said a stadium anywhere doesn’t make sense. He opposes any use of public money for sports venues.

"It's up to us to say no,” Rider said.

Fabiani counters that the city currently loses $15 million a year maintaining the 47-year-old Qualcomm Stadium.

The first game the Chargers played there was on Aug. 20, 1967. Since then, the city has paid to expand the stadium twice, for $9.1 million in 1984 and for $78 million in 1997.

"The city takes land that is costing it money, or it is making no money from, and turns it into land generating money with some of it used for the (Chargers) facility and some going into the city coffers,'' Fabiani said. "It's a better situation for everybody.''

Not so fast, Rider said.

"A better application of that money would go to fixing our infrastructure or our pension liability shortfall,'' Rider said. "Either one of them is a better use than putting money into a new stadium.''

Fabiani acknowledges that San Diegans will not pay for a new stadium in the same way that the owners of the San Francisco 49ers got funding for the $1.3 billion Levi’s Stadium, which opens this season in Santa Clara.

A government Stadium Authority, created to manage the facility, took out an $850 million loan to help pay for it. The loan is being paid off, in part, with revenue from naming rights and personal seat licenses sold as part of a season-ticket package.

The seat licenses are an upfront expense San Diego sports fans won’t go for, Fabiani said. "We just can't do that here,'' he said.

Could Los Angeles lure the Chargers away from San Diego?

Always playing as a backdrop in talks about building the Chargers a new stadium in San Diego is the specter of Los Angeles constructing a football stadium first and giving the Spanos family a sweet deal to move there.

After 20 years without a National Football League franchise, the league could take a more aggressive approach in bringing its product back to L.A.

With its labor agreement and TV contract negotiations behind it, the NFL could fund the stadium construction so professional football returns to the nation's second-largest city. Then it would rent the stadium to one, or possibly two, teams.

Also in the mix: St. Louis Rams owner Stan Koneke recently bought land adjacent to the soon-to-be vacant Hollywood Park horse racing track, a signal that the team could return to Los Angeles.

What happens — if anything — in L.A. could be significant for the Chargers.

Fabiani said that 30 percent of the Chargers’ premium seats, suite sales and advertising revenues come from the Los Angeles and Orange County markets.

"That will all be gone if another team moves in there,'' he said. "We know for the last 20 years it's been a lot of smoke and mirrors up there regarding the stadium. But if at some point that becomes different, that is a pretty serious thing.''

What’s next in San Diego for a Chargers stadium?

The Chargers can nullify their Qualcomm Stadium lease for $19 million next year by notifying the city during a four-month window that starts in February. The team can leave without penalty in 2020.

The mayor recognizes all of the moving parts in the stadium debate, but it's hard pinning him down on what happens next.

"We want to move it forward, but we want to make sure we do all our due diligence,'' Faulconer said. "So that timetable will be set by the Chargers and the city working together, and right now those discussions are staff-to-staff and are positive. But they are very low level at this point.”

He expects that to change in future months and gain more urgency.

"I've been less concerned about the location of where a stadium may or may not go than with the financial plan that actually constructs it,'' Faulconer said.

The mayor is certain the stadium issue will go before voters, but neither he nor the Chargers think that will happen next year. Most likely it would November 2016.

"The Chargers had committed and I have insisted that any final plan will have to go before the public for a public vote,'' Faulconer said.

With “a good financial plan,” he said, a stadium can win support from voters.

"It comes down to a financing plan,” Faulconer said. “We will have to have something, in my opinion, that will strongly protect San Diego taxpayers. That is my Nos. 1, 2 and 3 objective, and I think by working together we have the ability to do that.''

But for now, Chargers fans, the team and voters will have wait a little longer to find out what happens with a stadium in San Diego.

Jay Paris is a freelance sports writer in San Diego County. Contact him at jparis8@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jparis_sports.

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