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Will Proposed Ballot Measure Really Keep Comic-Con In San Diego?

Signature gatherers are making that pitch to holiday shoppers

Photo caption: A Citizens' Plan signature gatherer in Clairemont sits behind a sign that rea...

Photo by Laura Wingard

A Citizens' Plan signature gatherer in Clairemont sits behind a sign that reads, 'Sign to Keep Comic-Con in San Diego,' Nov. 21, 2015.

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Signature gatherers are out now trying to qualify the measure — "The Citizens' Plan for the Responsible Management of Major Tourism and Entertainment Resources" — for the ballot.

As you hustle in and out of grocery stores and shopping centers this holiday season, you may encounter someone asking you to sign a "petition to help keep Comic-Con in San Diego."

What is the petition actually for? It's to put a measure called "The Citizens' Plan for the Responsible Management of Major Tourism and Entertainment Resources" on the ballot.

The 77-page initiative was written by environmental attorney Cory Briggs and former San Diego City Councilwoman Donna Frye. It would make several changes, including:

• Raising hotel room taxes from 10.5 percent to 15.5 percent for hotels with more than 30 rooms. The tax would be 14 percent for hotels with fewer than 30 rooms.

• Eliminating the city's Tourism Marketing District and a 2 percent fee the district charges on hotel room stays. The Tourism Marketing District says those fees are not taxes, but Briggs is challenging that claim in court.

• Changing the city's municipal code so that 4 percent of hotel room taxes are not set aside for tourism purposes. Instead, that money would be available for general fund spending.

• Allowing hotel owners to collect a fee from themselves, which they could use on tourism marketing. If they choose to collect this fee, they would get an economic incentive of up to 2 percent of their room rents.

• Allowing hotel owners to collect a fee from themselves to build a San Diego Convention Center expansion. If they choose to collect this fee, they would get another economic incentive of up to 2 percent of their room rents.

That's where the claim that the measure would help keep Comic-Con in San Diego comes in.

Comic-Con has said it would like San Diego to expand its Convention Center, and this measure outlines one way to pay for that.

But last week Comic-Con sent to the media a statement that specifically said, “Signature Gathering Will Not Keep Comic-Con in San Diego."

Comic-Con spokesman David Glanzer said in the statement, "we had no knowledge of this effort and as you might imagine, this came as a total surprise to us." He went on to say that Comic-Con wants "a contiguous, expanded convention center."

The Citizens' Plan specifically prohibits the city from spending money on a contiguous expansion of the Convention Center along the waterfront.

But Jeff Powers, a spokesman for the Citizens' Plan, said the pitches by signature gatherers are accurate as long as they say the initiative could help keep Comic-Con in San Diego. If they say it will keep Comic-Con, then that's not accurate, Powers said.

That's because he does not think a contiguous expansion will ever be built. Last year Briggs defeated the city in court over its financing plan to expand the Convention Center. He is also suing to have the California Coastal Commission’s land-use approval of the waterfront expansion overturned.

"If the contiguous expansion of the Convention Center is illegal, which we think it is, you’re going to need an annexed Convention Center, which means you’re going to need more space," Powers said. "You can annex the Convention Center off the water and provide them the added space that they need."

Powers later clarified that he meant a nearby campus-style Convention Center expansion, not an annexed Convention Center.

Some signature gatherers are also using the pitch that the measure would help keep the San Diego Chargers. Voice of San Diego editor Scott Lewis spotted a sign in Point Loma that said, "Sign here for a new stadium at no cost to taxpayers" (the sign was replaced a day later), and the San Diego Stadium Coalition recruited signature gatherers "to help save the Chargers and keep Comic-Con in San Diego."

Tony Manolatos, who was a consultant for the Citizens' Stadium Advisory Group, said he's heard signature gatherers were told not to mention saving the Chargers because that would make shoppers less likely to sign.

If gatherers use that pitch, Manolatos said, it doesn't bother him. But, he said, "if you take time to read the initiative, it's clear it would not lead to a stadium in San Diego."

"The primary goal of the measure is blocking a contiguous expansion of the Convention Center and blocking using public money to build a stadium, so you're not going to walk away thinking it will help build a stadium," Manolatos said.

But Powers said the measure could help build a Chargers stadium, and he said signature gatherers have not been banned from mentioning the Chargers.

Frye, the measure's co-author, explained on KPBS Midday Edition that it "allows a downtown or Mission Valley Chargers stadium location, but it does not commit any public funding."

If the measure passed, it would free stadium projects either in Mission Valley or downtown from lawsuits that could be filed under the California Environmental Quality Act. It would also allow a river park and UC San Diego or San Diego State University to build at the Qualcomm Stadium site even if a new stadium is not built there.

It would also prevent public funding from being used on a downtown stadium project.

So how is a signature gatherer supposed to spit out all of the things the initiative would do in 10 seconds as a shopper passes by?

Powers suggested gatherers say something along the lines of, "This is a fantastic opportunity to cure a lot of the misdeeds, if you will, and some would say illegal activities of the TMD."

Frye suggested, "It allows the public to vote on public policy that they have been shut out of since 2005 or 2006. It's only the hoteliers who have been able to vote on whether or not there would be a TOT increase." She was referring to the transient occupancy tax — or a hotel room tax.

One signature gatherer outside a Target in Clairemont didn’t mention Comic-Con or the Chargers.

"It will fund major stuff like our beaches, bayfronts, waterways, the Convention Center expansion, stuff like that," he said.

Powers said he’s not concerned people will be too confused to sign the petition — or vote for the initiative if it gets to the ballot.

"We don’t believe it’s too complex, and the signature numbers are showing that," he said. "People understand what it’s about and are willing to sign."

They’ll need at least 66,000 signatures from registered voters in San Diego to qualify the measure for the ballot, either in June or November.

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