Faulconer's San Diego Convention Center Decision Expected Next Week
Inside the annual San Diego International Auto Show this month, three locals were asked a question: What do you think about using public dollars to expand the Convention Center?
“That, I don’t really have much of an opinion on," Steven Schott said.
“Public dollars for an expansion? I haven’t even thought of that one. I’m not sure about that question," Johnny Moon said.
“Well, I don’t know. It all comes down to distributing funds and looking at the whole big picture. So I don’t know," Maggie Pettit said.
Pettit’s a Coronado resident, but Schott and Moon are San Diego taxpayers and they’ll likely be asked to OK using public funds for an expansion.
Their uncertainty is understandable. Originally the city didn’t think it needed approval from voters to cover the $520 million project. But last summer a judge ruled it did. With no back-up payment plan, Mayor Kevin Faulconer faces a tough decision on how to move forward.
And attorney Cory Briggs is part of the problem. He represents groups opposed to various elements of the expansion. So far, he’s successfully argued in court against the funding scheme. He has another lawsuit pending over the location. The current design would add to the existing Convention Center on the San Diego Bay.
If the city wants an expansion, three conditions must be met, said Briggs in an interview from his law offices.
“Number 1 is, any financing that involves a tax needs to be subject to a public vote," he said. "Number 2, the expansion cannot be on the waterfront. And number 3, if there’s going to be any public money involved, it better be a really really good deal for the taxpayers of San Diego."
With San Diego needing billions to pay for a backlog for such things as road and sewer repairs, Briggs worries if building a bigger convention facility is worth nearly $1 billion of the public's money. He said that's how much the project would cost with the repayment of the bonds the city would issue.
Officials had hoped to fund the expansion by raising San Diego's hotel room tax.
So when a court ruled in August that San Diegans had to approve the funding plan by a two-thirds vote — a tough hurdle to achieve — Briggs celebrated in his office.
“I did a back flip right over there in the door way,” he said, pointing at the entrance to a conference room that doubles as his office.
He’s kidding but said he did jump pretty high. Expansion supporters, including Councilman Todd Gloria, didn’t. They were crushed.
“I was incredibly disappointed," said Gloria, whose district includes the Convention Center. "I was kind of surprised because we won at the trial level."
Gloria said he's worried that if the city doesn’t go to the voters with the current design, the plans, permits and approvals that the city spent years and millions of dollars to get will be useless. And officials would have to go back to the drawing board to finance the expansion.
“And that’s regrettable, because we are missing out on business. ... It does put marquee events like Comic-Con at risk of going to other communities and, of course, the thousands of jobs — both construction and permanent — that this would represent," Gloria said.
The councilman and the city’s tourism officials claim an expansion will keep San Diego’s biggest conventions coming back and draw new ones. They say more conventions bring more people, which generates more public revenues.
“It would create millions of dollars in our general fund, and that would be the very dollars that I could use to pave roads, open up libraries and hire more police officers," Gloria said.
But if the current plan does go on the ballot, it could miss the two-thirds mark. That potential challenge prompted new options to appear, including an idea proposed by the developer of Petco Park. JMI Realty suggested an off-site convention facility that would join an expansion with a new Chargers stadium. But tourism officials argue a contiguous expansion is needed and that a separate facility wouldn't meet their clients' needs.
All of this sets the stage for a highly anticipated decision from the mayor at next's week’s State of the City speech. Until then, he’s keeping mum. Faulconer declined to be interviewed for this story. So did his right-hand man on the issue, Steve Cushman, who chairs the Convention Center Corporation's board of directors.
Gloria said he doesn’t know which way Faulconer’s leaning but knows the mayor’s been weighing his options.
“It’s my understanding that the mayor has been meeting with the stakeholders, both in the tourism industry and the Chargers, to try and find a way forward on this and a new football stadium," the councilman said.
According to the Faulconer's calendar, he met separately with tourism and Chargers officials at least 10 times since September. On Monday, he discussed stadium and Convention Center proposals with former Padres owner John Moores of JMI Realty.
Faulconer's State of the City speech is 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Balboa Theatre.