Ron Hahn, son of the man credited with revitalizing interest in downtown real estate by building a giant, gaudy shopping mall, is himself quite the pitchman.
While poppa Ernie Hahn planted his shovel in the sleazy heart of downtown San Diego and produced Horton Plaza, son Ron's domain for the past 14 years has been the San Diego Sports Arena, which sits on 95 acres of city property in the Midway District (or the North Bay, as the city now calls it)-acreage that is giving potential developers wet dreams at the thought of getting their hands on it.
Hoping to avoid another public-relations disaster that continues to haunt the Naval Training Center redevelopment known as Liberty Station less than a mile to the south, San Diego City Councilmember Michael Zucchet has formed an ad hoc committee that is charged with helping guide future plans for the highly prized property.
The creation of the committee is also an affirmation that past efforts to decide the fate of the underused, 38-year-old Sports Arena were ill-conceived, to put it mildly. The most recent attempt a couple years ago-led by Zucchet's developer-cozy predecessor, Byron Wear (reviled in some quarters for his behind-the-scenes shenanigans with NTC)-was woefully short on public involvement.
A year ago last month, the City Council met privately and decided to junk those efforts, which had narrowed the selection of developers from seven to two, one of which involved Hahn, but had almost entirely neglected to ask in the process what the community wanted on a site that was expanded to include about 280 public and private acres roughly bounded by Sports Arena and West Point Loma boulevards, Interstate 8 and Rosecrans Street.
For Hahn, the stakes are high. His company, Sports Arena Group 2000, holds the lease on the sports facility until roughly 2017. But from Hahn's perspective, the community must speak loudly and soon about what should happen there. Why the hurry? Hahn hears the train a-comin'.
"The train's at Liberty Station right now, guys, and it's coming this way," he told committee members recently. "And I don't know how you feel about Liberty Station-some of you may love it; some of you may hate it-but that's the process that we're going to have if we don't do something."
The message: as long as the financially strained city gets its money, it won't care as much as the community about what is built in place of the Sports Arena, whether that means thousands of condominiums, a super-sized Wal-Mart or high-rise office buildings that would shatter the 30-foot height limit now imposed there.
But it's that core question that needs an answer, Zucchet told CityBeat. "This is a committee made up of people who represent the various community groups in the area," he said. "It's an informal group, but they've been asked to weigh in on the controversial issue of the day."
One question that will probably generate some debate, the councilmember noted, is, "Do you want to do anything at all? That may be obvious to some people like Ron Hahn, but not to everybody."
Hahn clearly wants to move forward. At the meeting, he talked about how he's lost money every year he's run the Sports Arena, which over the years has lost market share to Chula Vista's Coors Amphitheater and San Diego State's Cox Arena. Coors, for example, can seat about 6,000 more patrons than the Sports Arena.
"That's why the Eagles went down there [to Coors], because they walked out of there with $2 million for [a concert lasting] an hour and 45 minutes," Hahn said. "I don't have enough seats to sell."
The Sports Arena continues to hold about 175 events a year, including some concerts, professional hockey and indoor football, Hahn said, but the surrounding massive parking lot goes pretty much unused. Plus, there's the issue of what to do about Kobey's Swap Meet, San Diego's prime flea-market that dates back 25 years and now draws 1.5 million a year to the Sports Arena property.
Hahn regaled the committee on his efforts to spawn interest in a new arena downtown, and even discussions about possibly including such an event-type venue in the massive redevelopment project in the works for Chula Vista's waterfront, much of which is controlled by the San Diego Unified Port District.
As for downtown, Hahn said he's involved in "ongoing conversations" with Padres owner John Moores, although a spokesman for the Centre City Development Corp.-the city's downtown redevelopment arm-said he was unaware of any discussions. Derek Danziger, the spokesman, said the city's Redevelopment Agency owns the property, currently serving as Tailgate Park, but that it will soon be turned over to the Port District, which has a lease agreement with Moores.
But meanwhile, Hahn and his son, Ernie (who sits on the ad hoc committee), want to be players in the Sports Arena site's future. "I think it's fair to observe that the Hahns' long-term intent is for some type of development on that site," Zucchet concurred.
While the committee is merely advisory in nature, some members do hold some clout. Long-time real-estate investor Lyle Butler, who owns numerous parcels just north of the Sports Arena, and Bill Kenton, another large landholder in the area, both sit on the committee.
One thing some members will have to learn is to work with the public. Kenton, for one, objected to a reporter tape-recording their second meeting, when Hahn spoke quite candidly. The chairman, nearby fitness-center owner Joe Mannino, frequently noted that the committee's ad hoc status made it unnecessary to abide by the Brown Act, the state's open-meeting law.
He was technically correct, but considering the past failures to decide the Sports Arena's fate, cutting a little more slack for public debate would seem in order.
But for those who think the status quo will win the day, Hahn has this to say: "The overwhelming demand for public assembly area in a city this size is such that there will be a new sports arena built. So if you're in a position right now that your best world is that the Sports Arena operates forever as an asset to your community, you'll lose the battle. It's going to go away eventually."What do we want to have on that property when it's gone?"