Let's just get these facts out of the way: The San Diego Chargers football franchise is a private business that's asking for lots of the public's money—probably $500 million or more—to build a new headquarters. The only reason this private business isn't being laughed out of town is that it happens to be a source of civic pride—so it's a big-money corporation that uses its devoted fans as leverage to pry loose precious taxpayer dollars that would otherwise pay for things that serve a broader swath of citizens.
Agreed? Great. OK, so, the Chargers want to build a stadium just east of Petco Park, where Tailgate Park, the Wonder Bread building and a bus yard are now. Because the site is so small, there's space only for a stadium and no room for ancillary development that might otherwise help generate the revenue to finance the stadium. That's why the Chargers now say they need the taxpayers to kick in hundreds of millions of dollars to get it done. But the city of San Diego is broke, so that money can't come from the city's general fund. What the team wants—and what Mayor Jerry Sanders seems to want, as well—is to use Downtown redevelopment money. Redevelopment money is generated when a city revitalizes a neighborhood and hangs on to the resulting increase in property taxes rather than dividing it up among local government agencies like regular property taxes. The catch is that the money has to be spent on gussying up that same neighborhood.
Here are some points to consider:
• The Chargers have won their last nine games and now are tied for the third best winning percentage in the 32-team National Football League. Their point differential—the difference between the total points they've scored minus the number of points they've allowed their opponents—is seventh best in the league. It's very hard to win on the road, but their road record is 6-1, third best in the league. By any measuring stick, the Chargers are a very good football team. You might even call them “competitive.”
So what? Well, the Chargers say they need a new stadium to be competitive. Qualcomm Stadium isn't equipped with the kind of luxury suites that pull in big money for football clubs, the Chargers say. They need that money to be financially competitive, they argue, and only if they're financially competitive can they be competitive on the field.
But look—they're better than 28 other teams and worse than only two. And they play in crappy old Qualcomm Stadium without those sweet suites. Something's working. Here's an idea: Why not just ask citizens to give the team $600 million in extra money to pay for All-Pro players for a period of time equal to the lifespan of an average football stadium? Think that would fly? Us neither.
• The Chargers' financial books aren't open for public scrutiny. Why would any city in its right mind even begin to consider kicking in taxpayer money before knowing how much money that business has at its disposal? We say closed books are a deal killer.
• In his Sunday Union-Tribune argument in favor of the stadium proposal, former City Councilmember Scott Peters said that by helping build it, the city would merely be redirecting $225 million away from what it would have to put into Qualcomm between now and 2020 and putting it toward a new and better arena. But if the Chargers and the NFL kick in $300 million, that leaves the total far short of the lowest estimated price tag of $700 million.
• Chargers special counsel Mark Fabiani and other boosters say the city would reap additional benefits from selling the land beneath Qualcomm and from increased economic activity Downtown, but those are far from guaranteed outcomes. The land beneath Qualcomm is polluted. Are the Chargers going to pay to clean it up? And the Downtown redevelopment area is largely built out. It's likely that most of any possible economic dominoes that were ever going to fall already fell as a result of Petco Park. Banking on such revenue streams is pie-in-the-sky.
• Any borrowing against future redevelopment money in excess of $225 million must be considered speculative. Voters should be warned that if revenue increases don't match the public subsidy over and above $225 million, tax increases may be needed to pay the bond down because there's no money in the city's general fund.
These points don't even cover a stadium's potential impacts on the surrounding neighborhoods, the appropriateness of redevelopment as a financing tool for this project and the team's history of bamboozling the city out of money. As far as we're concerned, the Chargers are facing a task more difficult than fourth and 20 with two minutes left on the clock.
What do you think? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.