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Reopening San Diego's Theme Parks

 February 12, 2021 at 9:23 AM PST

Speaker 1: 00:00 To San Diego gems and pillars of our tourism economy. How are the San Diego zoo and SeaWorld navigating the latest COVID reopening? Well, Padres fans get to see their team in person. This season anticipation builds as the fryers make their way to spring training and finding an affordable place to live. Isn't easy in San Diego could upending real estate mega deal, make it even harder. I'm Mark Sauer. The KPBS round table starts now welcome to our discussion of the week's top stories. I'm Mark Sauer, and joining me on this remote edition of the KPBS round table today, Lori Weisberg, who covers tourism and marketing for the San Diego union Tribune, any Hilbrun multimedia sports journalists for the union Tribune and KPBS Metro reporter, Andrew Bowen, the latest big COVID vaccination site opens at the Del Mar fairgrounds. This weekend, the weather, the fare itself returns the summer remains to be seen and other popular attractions like the San Diego zoo and SeaWorld are open only on a highly restricted basis, but they, and other theme parks like Lego land and Disneyland want the restrictions to be eased, allowing at least some visitors to return here to explain as Lori Weisberg, who covers tourism and marketing for the San Diego union Tribune. Speaker 1: 01:26 Welcome back to the program, Laurie. Speaker 2: 01:27 Thanks Mark. When to be here. Well, your Speaker 1: 01:29 Story this week focused on a bipartisan bill introduced in Sacramento regarding restrictions on theme parks in California, uh, start by telling us who introduced the bill and what are these lawmakers want governor Gavin Newsome to do? Speaker 2: 01:43 Okay. So these are two Southern California lawmakers. One is assembly woman sharing court Silva from Fullerton and the a and she, her district includes Disneyland and Knott's Berry farm collaborating with her on the legislation is assembly woman Martinez [inaudible] from Santa Clarita and her district includes a magic mountain. So basically they're trying to get the governor's office to move up or accelerate when theme parks can open. Speaker 1: 02:11 Now, uh, if, if somehow they got the governor to come in their direction and, uh, places like Lego land and Disneyland were allowed to open again, uh, under restricted, uh, conditions, what would those restrictions look like? What might visitors expect to encounter? Speaker 2: 02:26 Well, it would still have to be about at 25% capacity. The state wants the reservation system so that you have to make a reservation to come to the park at a certain date and time ahead of time. Uh, obviously very strict, um, masking at all times. Um, those kinds of, you know, sanitation, I mean the theme parks say they they're already, they already have those kinds of measures in place. They're letting people come for shopping. Like in Disney it's downtown Disney is open, so they already have the drill for the sanitation, the social distancing, the mass squaring, but capacity would be significantly less just as it's supposed to be right now for the zoo and SeaWorld, which are allowed to be open under rules for zoos and aquariums. Speaker 1: 03:17 And anecdotally, you're getting any feedback on how it's going at these parks when they opened again recently, is it, are they doing okay with these restrictions? Speaker 2: 03:25 I think so. I mean, I think I, I think they're doing okay. I did talk to incidentally. I talked to a coworker who was at Safari park on last weekend, who said it wasn't so much about the measures they were taking. She said it seemed almost as full as when she had gone pre pandemic. I mean, so far, I haven't heard any complaints about that. They're not following the restrictions and they're not keeping things under control. I mean, they are requiring online reservations, which you've never had to do before. Speaker 1: 03:57 Right now. Other places have gone ahead and opened theme parks elsewhere a while. California has kept, most of them closed as we're talking about are severely restricted. Uh, what have California officials learned in trips to say Florida? Speaker 2: 04:09 So, right. So Florida has had their parks open for some time. Initially it reduced capacities. And I think in general, they were, they were pleased with the, uh, what they saw. Um, we also know from some reporting that none of these parks apparently have had any major outbreaks. I at one point talked to a reporter at the Orlando Sentinel who said, um, there may be some minor outbreaks, but for the most part there's, there has not been any reporting on any major outbreaks at any of these parks. So there's a sense that they're doing well, that the, that the precautions they're taking are working. Uh, but apparently the governor's office was still very worried because people are coming from all over the country to these parks and they, they feel like they don't have enough control over that. That crowd is so there. So there's, they're being very cautious on the theme parks. Speaker 1: 05:06 No, it certainly makes you wonder about the financial situation at these parks. SeaWorld was just recovering from that Black-ish scandal before the pandemic hit a year ago. Uh, do we know how they share during the pandemic? I mean, we've got federal relief funds coming in, are they keeping them going? What do we know about the zoo and Lego land and other things? Yeah, Speaker 2: 05:24 Like for instance, SeaWorld has had to take out substantial loans that they plan to on their own, that they plan to pay back even with our parks closed. Um, excuse me, even with their parks open in Florida and elsewhere, but closing California, they're still taking a significant, significant hit on their revenue, but they do expect to recover their, their latest earnings are coming out later this month. But I thought it was interesting. Disney's earnings just came out for their first quarter ending January 2nd. And, um, they have a division that they call their parks experiences and products, which also Incruse includes cruise ships. So you get a flavor of the parks so that the revenue from that sector alone fell 53%. They say they lost about $2.6 billion in lost operating income during this most recent quarter, even with some of their parks open elsewhere. Of course it is. And he's got so many more assets. So that, that helps make up for the losses in their parks and cruise business. Speaker 1: 06:26 Yeah, there are different ones to the next. And who knows if president Biden gets is a massive $1.9 trillion relief bill through maybe would have helped for these kinds of businesses. Finally, I wanted to ask you about, uh, the vaccination programs we stumbled in California. Things seem to be getting better day by day. I mentioned the big sites going to open it, the Domar fairgrounds, any idea at this point, what percentage of the population would need to be vaccinated, presumably with a corresponding big drop in the number of cases before these parks would be allowed to return to something close to normal operations? Speaker 2: 07:00 Well, I know that's like that is the $64,000 question who, who can predict when there'll be enough immunity through people having have a disease on through vaccines that you bring that case rate number that we were talking about earlier down to a level that would let them go into these, these, uh, less restrictive tiers. So I think it still could be the months, but maybe the vaccines could be so accelerated that, that maybe those case rates could fall that dramatically. It's just so, cause we're so early in that vaccine process, it's hard to know how quickly the case rates follow though. You know, as you pointed out, they already are falling, right? Speaker 1: 07:38 Well, it's something we'll certainly all be watching and doing stories on as we go ahead into the next few months, I've been speaking with union Tribune, reporter Lori Weisberg. Thanks Laurie. Thank you. Next week, the potteries report to spring training for one of the most anticipated seasons in years, it's not just the revamp pitching staff and the talk of another playoff run. Fans are also hopeful that they'll get to finally see their team in person as progress is made on the COVID-19 pandemic. The first test for major league baseball is in Arizona and Florida, where details are still being hammered out. Reporter Annie Heilbrunn covers the Padres for the San Diego union Tribune. Annie, welcome back to the round table, Speaker 3: 08:18 Mark. Thanks so much for having me. It's great to be here. Speaker 1: 08:21 Well, let's start with the schedule. What does it look like for the Padres in the days ahead, pitchers and catchers traditionally report first, right? Speaker 3: 08:28 You've got it. Yeah, there was the thought that that spring training might be delayed, but it is going to start on time and pitchers and catchers report on the 17th. And then it is a full squad workout on the 22nd. And then games start on the 27th, at least that's what's scheduled right now. Things are always subject to change, but players are going to be going to Florida and to Arizona for their respective camps and planning to spend about six weeks there, like normal. Yeah, that sounds pretty Speaker 1: 08:56 Normal. Now it was during spring training last March when COVID really hit in this country and games were canceled. Teams are sent home. We didn't see them all again until July under very different circumstances. Are we expecting the full spring training calendar? Speaker 3: 09:10 That's what, that's what we're expecting right now. Um, games will look a little different. So spring training games, the schedules might be a little different sometimes. Well, in the past they would have split squad workouts. They'd have two games in the same day, things like that. And they're probably going to do away with that this year and make some of the games a little closer for some of the teams. So maybe some, maybe some minor scheduling differences. And then the other change is that games may be five innings or seven innings instead of the normal nine innings. So maybe some shorter games and maybe some scheduling changes, but they stand to be pretty minor at least right now. And of course, if, if, if COVID concerns ramp up, then they could take some things off the schedule depending. Speaker 1: 09:51 And of course, a lot of San Diego fans love to make that the road trip over to Phoenix for spring training, what should they know? Are they going to be allowed to attend any limitations or do we even know at this point? Speaker 3: 10:02 Yeah, it's a great question. And fans are awaiting the answer. This will be the first time unless they made the trip to Texas for the playoffs, which most didn't, this will be the first time that they'll be able to see the Padres since 2019. And so I've heard from many that they want to make the trip there. They're thinking about it right now. It sounds like there will be fans allowed, but that hasn't been made official. So if there are fans, what I'm hearing is that it will be capped. There will be maybe a 20%, 25% cap, maybe a little larger than that, depending on what Arizona does allow, but fans have not been able to pull the trigger on it yet. It's not yet quite official, but there's talks that they're going to be allowed to do so. So it's kind of a wait and see approach right now, like with everything. And we should hear in the next few weeks. Speaker 1: 10:49 And of course, if they're going, they're going to have to think about food and restaurants and bars are limited and everybody knows how difficult it is to travel right now. So we're not out of the woods by a long shot, unfortunately, but let's talk a little bit about the excitement for the Padres team itself for now to tatties junior become a national star appearing on the cover of Sony's hit video game, MLB the show, Padres added some big name pitchers after some tough luck with injuries and the pitching staff. Uh, what's the outlook for 2021 on the field? Speaker 3: 11:17 Well, the pottery is definitely improved this off season, at least on paper. And it looks like it will transfer well to the field. They have new pictures, you Darvish Blake Snell, like you just said, um, uh, Korean superstar, Hassan Kim, another back end of the rotation guide, Joe Musgrove, they've really ramped up their roster and they're looking like they're going to be contenders again this year. And especially contending with the Dodgers. Now, the Dodgers also got better in the off season by signing Trevor Bowers. So I think it's going to be some must-see television, some must-see games between the potteries and the Dodgers this year as fight for that national league title. But they, they definitely look like they're a more well-rounded roster this year. Of course, it's, it's going to depend Mark, like, you know, they're going to have to get on the field and prove it. And last year they played 60 games this year. They're planning to go back to the one 62. So it's going to be different for these players are going to need to ramp up and get back healthy again and make sure their arms are healthy and prepare for the grind of a longer season. Speaker 1: 12:18 Right? And they were about as exciting a team as there wasn't baseball to watch last year and unfortunate. Unfortunately it was TV only, which was really a shame. And of course, as you know, the Dodgers did pretty well as well as the Padres did that. I just did a little better as they put all the way through that, uh, that abbreviated season, the right on through to the world. Now, in addition to your work with the UT, you're also appear on TV broadcast. And last time we talked with you, you told us about the strict rules for media, including a lot of zoom meetings. You expect to get more access to players. Do you think the season will get more normal as we go along? Speaker 3: 12:50 No. You know what it's we just found out that we will be back to zooms only again this year. And you'd like, you just mentioned, Mark. People are not out of the woods. You know, there there's still a pandemic going on. Coronavirus is still going on. The mutations are still happening. And so for any of these, these people that are planning to go to Arizona, which is more open than California, that might be the, you know, maybe their best shot right now to see the games. But there are still concerns like you said, and that goes for us media as well. We are only going to be allowed to talk to players again, through video conference, through zooms, we will have no face to face interaction. We won't be allowed in the clubhouses or on any of the fields or anywhere near the players or the baseball personnel. So staff front office and coaches, things like that. It was, it was difficult last year. I'm not going to lie to go through that. And this year it looks like it's going to be more of the same. Speaker 1: 13:41 And while we're talking about people trying to see the team this year, the Padres organization is least preparing for crowds. What are the, what do we know about the survey that went out to the season ticket holders this week? Speaker 3: 13:52 Yeah, they're definitely hopeful that once more people are vaccinated, that they're going to be able to allow in crowds that maybe a 20% capacity or whatever is allowed at that point. But they're asking season ticket holders. Do you feel safe to come in? If we do things like seating pods, if we have flexi glass washing stations, if we, you know, if we take these measures, when will you feel most comfortable? When will you feel most safe to attend a game? And they are saying that they can't say that anything is for sure yet, but it sounds like they're gauging their season ticket holders to find out, you know, how many would we expect to get once we are able to open the doors and how are people going to feel most comfortable watching a game. So things like maybe they won't be sitting in their regular seats, maybe they'll move around or have different pods of seating just to make things a little bit more safe and distant for everyone. And that's kind of what the Padres are doing right now is looking over that and seeing how they can best make it appealing for fans. Speaker 1: 14:46 And you'll wonder at some point, if all the baseball players and the personnel and the trainers and the will all get vaccinated too and make it safer all the way around, at least for them as they travel and move about other big story in the sports news this week, chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer had a very, very, a successful season here. He passed away. What do you make of the reaction, how he's remembered here in San Diego? Speaker 3: 15:09 Yeah, we saw so many people talk about Marty and their impact that, that, that Marty had on their lives. And he was such an influential coach, um, not just for the players, but for the people in his coaching tree as well for the people that he, he came across, that he was able to mentor and that we're able to be part of the organization at that time or during his time in, um, in the NFL. But, you know, he's someone that related so well to players and we saw yesterday or the day before this week, you know, how, how players have talked about just how, how much of an impact he made on their lives off the field, you know, through his teaching on the field and through what he was able to impart about leadership, about teamwork, about, about playing with hearts, but also off the field about being good men about living, you know, lives that have integrity that have intention. And so we saw so many wonderful stories come out this week about Marty Schottenheimer. He really will go down and chargers history, a very special coach. One that was really beloved by players by, by even by media members, by pretty much everyone who came across them, even if they didn't agree with his coaching structure, some of the calls that he made, they liked him as a person, you know, so he was definitely made an impact. And of course being fired after that 14 and two season, um, does go down in chargers infamy as well. Speaker 1: 16:31 It sure does. He, he had a bright and shining moment. It wasn't here long, but it really did make an impact in that very special year. I've been speaking with Annie, Heilbrunn the multimedia sports reporter for the San Diego union Tribune. Thanks a lot, Annie Mark. Thanks so much. Take care. It seems to be a competition between good intentions, the impressive charitable foundation established by the late philanthropist. Conrad previs wants to sell a vast portfolio of it's San Diego housing complexes, but the fear is the 6,000 residences relatively affordable now would be upgraded by new owners causing rents to soar here, to explain this KPBS, Metro reporter, Andrew Bowen. Welcome back to the round table, Andrew. Speaker 4: 17:13 Thank you, Mike. Glad to be here. Speaker 1: 17:15 Well, start with the housing units in question, describe these apartment complexes. What are they, where are they? Who lives in them? Now? Speaker 4: 17:22 There were mostly apartment buildings. The average age is about 40 years old. So there are definitely on the older side, they're really all across the County. They're in the South Bay, East County, North County, some in the beach communities as well. We don't know much specifically about the tenants, but we can definitely assume that they're not wealthy. That's because most of these homes are relatively low cost and it stands to reason that many of the tenants are in fact, low income. So Speaker 1: 17:50 In this very expensive housing market, these folks can, can afford to live there. Now remind us who Conrad previs was and give us an overview of his foundation. Speaker 4: 17:59 Preface was a prolific developer in San Diego County for many decades. He moved here in the sixties. He co-founded a construction company that ended up building many thousands of units all across the County. And his foundation was his vehicle for his charitable giving. In the later years of his life, he definitely put a greater emphasis on philanthropy. It was reported. He gave away $200 million in his lifetime. Some of examples of major gifts are to the San Diego zoo. There's the Conrad previs Africa rocks exhibit there also the LA Jolla music society. They built a concert hall called the Conrad SDSU has the Conrad previs Aztec student union. And, and actually the foundation is also a KPBS producer's club member. And since preface his death in 2016, the foundation has just continued that giving. In fact, they're preparing for the next cycle of grants right now, Speaker 1: 18:49 And now they want to give a lot more. According to your story, if the previs foundation sold all of these housing complexes, how much money would that raise and what do they intend to use it for? Speaker 4: 18:58 Well, I'd like to back up really quick. And it's important to note that the foundation did not advertise the sale publicly. They listed it through a private brokerage firm. The foundation told me that they did not set a minimum bid, uh, but I was able to review some marketing materials for the sale that said the estimated value of the portfolio could approach $1.5 billion. So a massive transaction, uh, marketing materials, these marketing materials, I was able to review also said that this would far exceed any prior sale of apartments in San Diego County. And just to go a bit deeper, they also said that this listing is expected to generate strong interest because the pandemic has increased the demand for low cost housing. In other words, the economic desperation that many low and middle income families in San Diego are experiencing right now and the, you know, dire need for affordable housing in San Diego County makes this portfolio more valuable because these units are highly sought after, as far as what we know, uh, you know, as far as what the money from the proceeds of the sale would be used for, it would be the same causes that the foundation supports. Speaker 4: 20:03 Now they support medical research, healthcare, higher education, arts, youth development, and animal conservation. Just to name a few, Speaker 1: 20:11 You interviewed local housing advocates. So what are their concerns about this massive sale if it were to take place? Speaker 4: 20:17 Well, these apartments are what, uh, those experts in affordable housing called naturally occurring affordable housing. This means they're not subsidized by the government and the rents are not restricted by some kind of affordability covenant, but because they are old and maybe not in the best shape, they're all, they're still affordable to low and middle income households. And this is the majority actually of the affordable housing in the County. The concerns are that the new owners will do some quick renovations and then raise the rents. And that also is an explicit point in those marketing materials that we were able to see, examples of renovations could be they'll replace the carpet with more modern vinyl flooring. They'll put in foam granite, top counters, you know, a new paint job, maybe some new appliances, and all these things are relatively cheap for a wealthy investor, but they can yield big profits in the form of rent increases that follow because many of these residents are low income. Speaker 4: 21:09 It's very likely they won't be able to afford those rent increases, especially now. And on top of all this there, we still have this massive shortage of low cost housing. If we had had a functional housing market over the past 30 years, let's say we would have been building enough homes to accommodate our population growth. And maybe those homes would be expensive to begin with, but as they age over the decades, they would, the price would come down and now we would have an abundance of low cost housing. Landlords would actually be competing for tenants. Instead, what we have is the opposite. There's a severe shortage of housing, uh, most acutely at the bottom of the market. And the fear is that many of these tenants in these homes will have to move when the rent goes up or worst case scenario they'll fall into homelessness. Speaker 1: 21:55 And of course on the other side, the previs foundation obviously wants to keep doing good works and raise more money and spend their money on the various projects they have going in on the foundation side. Speaker 4: 22:05 Yeah, there are many organizations in San Diego County that have really turned to the preface foundation for major capital projects for their operations. And they all have certainly an interest in a, a foundation that has stable income and plenty of cash to distribute. Speaker 1: 22:21 Now, local government leaders did not want to see these thousands of apartments flipped as it were, and, and watch the rents go up. What are they saying and doing about it Speaker 4: 22:30 While I was reporting this story, I learned that San Diego mayor Todd, Gloria County supervisor Nathan Fletcher and state Senator Toni Atkins, had all written a joint letter to the foundation's board president. And, uh, they shared these concerns about displacement, about residents, potentially being priced out of these homes. If the sale goes through and they urged the foundation to consider what the buyer intends to do with the units after the sale takes place, the foundation for their part told me that they cannot speculate on what the new owners will do with these units. But again, at the same time that the marketing materials for the sale explicitly mentioned the profits than an investor could make. If they renovate the units and raise the rents, Speaker 1: 23:14 But these government leaders, they really don't have any power. Do they to prevent this from happening unless their, their government agencies were convinced to buy the units themselves. Speaker 4: 23:23 They can't buy the units themselves. Um, for starters, just because the bidding has closed, the foundation did not notify any public agencies like the San Diego housing commission, for example, or affordable housing providers in advance of the listing going on the market. So these agents, you know, public agencies, affordable housing providers, never even got the chance to bid the foundation. Also prefers to sell all these apartments as a bundle, as one package. So it's unlikely that any one organization would be able to put together the kind of capital that would be needed to purchase the, all of the apartments. Speaker 1: 23:57 And how emblematic is this proposed sale and upgrade of these housing units to similar flipping of existing housing across San Diego, flipping is nothing new. I mean, this is what the market tends to do, right? Big profits and risks are involved after all. Speaker 4: 24:11 Yeah, upgrading homes with renovations is just a natural part of the housing market. You, you can't just let a unit sit and deteriorate, but that sometimes does happen. And in cases where homes are in really bad shape because of neglect, it might even be necessary to do some kind of flip on them. But the difference from, you know, traditional home flipping as you might call it, and what we're seeing with this potential sale is simply the scale flipping would happen, potentially unit by unit, as a tenant moves out in a building. This would be happening, not just potentially, and again, we can't predict the future obviously, but what's likely to happen is it would not just be an entire building, but all 66 properties that are included in this portfolio can encompassing more than 5,800 apartments all happening either at once or maybe scaled over a couple of years. It's just happening a whole lot faster with the scale of this portfolio. Speaker 1: 25:06 Well, we just have to realize how big this entire endeavor really is. And finally, what's the timetable on all of this. If we know it, or the sales eminent for these previs apartment complexes Speaker 4: 25:17 Foundation did not give me an estimated or targeted closing date. They just said that the bidding is now closed. So they're not looking at any more offers. And they're now just looking through all the offers they got and, and working to select their preferred buyer. Speaker 1: 25:32 Well, lots of follow up here. It's a really interesting story. I've been speaking with KPBS mentor reporter, Andrew Bowen. Thanks Andrew. Thank you, Mark. That wraps up our discussion of the week's top stories I'd like to thank my guests, Laurie Weisberg and Annie Heilbrunn of the San Diego union Tribune and Andrew Bowen of KPBS news. You can find all the stories we discussed on our website, I'm Mark Sauer. Thanks for listening and join us again next week on the round table.

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State lawmakers push to accelerate theme park reopenings as SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo reopen with limited capacity, the San Diego Padres prepare for a new season while navigating COVID-19 and housing advocates worry how a large local real estate deal might affect the supply of affordable apartments.