It was only a matter of time before plans for a Convention Center expansion and new Chargers stadium intersected. Both projects are within blocks of each other downtown, both are looking at some of the same funding sources and both are on Mayor Jerry Sanders’ agenda for his term’s final 18 months.
Only one of the projects has taken demonstrable steps forward in the past two years. The $550 million Convention Center expansion is moving toward a financing plan, and has design contracts and consultants and a strong push behind it. In the meantime, the $800 million stadium project is languishing. The Chargers just saw their preferred revenue source, redevelopment dollars, dry up and now are eyeing their project as a part of the Convention Center deal.
“One idea that is getting some traction is the creation of a new Sports and Entertainment District that would tie closely into the existing Convention Center – and perhaps become part of the proposed Convention Center expansion,” Chargers special counsel Mark Fabiani said on the team’s website last weekend.
In the broad sense, Fabiani is talking about a domed football stadium that would house conventions and other events. It would anchor a new restaurant-and-retail-heavy neighborhood likely extending the half-mile from the new stadium to the Convention Center.
Beyond that, nothing else is clear. It’s not even apparent if he’s talking about making a Convention Center expansion and stadium into one facility or building the stadium and expanding the center but financing it together. (Fabiani declined to comment for this story.)
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Still, with the possibility of a combined Convention Center expansion and stadium in the public eye, here’s a closer look at what’s working against the possibility, and a couple of reasons why it could still end up happening.
How the Combined Center/Stadium Doesn’t Happen
1) The mayor doesn’t want it.
Sanders, his Convention Center expansion point man, a key hotel leader and the Convention Center’s spokesman all consider the expansion and the stadium two separate projects. They have said that a new domed football stadium could supplement an expanded center, but not replace it. Even Fred Maas, the mayor’s stadium advisor, hasn’t embraced the idea.
“You don’t want to cannibalize what’s happening at the Convention Center for a concept at the stadium,” Maas told me last week.
Combining the two facilities into one, or even restarting the development of a financing plan, would take a major shift from the Mayor’s Office and everyone else who is working toward expanding the center. The only key player making a case for it right now is Fabiani.
2.) Conventioneers don’t want it.
Whenever Fabiani mentions combining the two projects, Convention Center boosters point out that they’ve already dismissed the idea. The expansion task force tossed out a location near the proposed stadium site out because conventioneers have said they want one contiguous facility. Two separate sites a half-mile apart don’t work, the task force was told.
3.) Los Angeles.
It’s no secret that two major developers in Los Angeles have stadium projects in the works and need a team. The Chargers, who can break their lease easier than anyone in the NFL, always appear on the top of the Los Angeles list. Imagine San Diego links the Convention Center expansion to the stadium, goes through the years-long process of financing and permitting the facility and then the team bolts for a better deal in Los Angeles. In that scenario, neither project happens.
The more you add to a project, the more difficult it is to pull off. Consider the simple question of who runs the new facility. The Chargers have said they want to operate and maintain the new stadium and book its events. The city already has a nonprofit that runs the Convention Center and a nonprofit that promotes tourism. Just who would take charge of the new place is enough to create headaches.
5.) The vote.
Sanders and the Chargers have committed to a public vote for a new stadium. Convention Center expansion backers are doing everything they can to avoid a public vote for their project. The Chargers have indicated they’re willing to back off a vote once planned for next November. The mayor wants the Convention Center to break ground by next December. These don’t mix.
How the Combined Center/Stadium Actually Could Happen
1.) They might just end up needing each other.
The Convention Center expansion is far from a done deal. Backers are counting on 75 percent of the funding coming from increased hotel-room taxes, but need hoteliers to sign off. They also are searching for the rest of the money, including eyeing the same redevelopment dollars as stadium backers. Sanders’ Convention Center advisor has said he’s “scraping the barrel” to come up with the remainder of the funds needed.
Even if a new stadium will cost more than just an expanded center, there are more potential sources of revenue. The Chargers have said they’d kick in $300 million for the existing project and the city could sell the existing Qualcomm Stadium and Sports Arena sites for more money. A sports and entertainment district, which could attract a private developer and new restaurant and retail space, could create more redevelopment dollars to finance a combined facility or help fill gaps for two separate ones.
2.) Conventioneers may be fine with a stadium that doubles as a Convention Center.
In snowy Boston, convention-goers might not like having to walk a few blocks between venues, but in sunny San Diego it might not be so bad. Heck, there would be a $27 million pedestrian bridge between the two. The Convention Center expansion task force concluded an expansion needed to be part of the existing location, but not all meeting and event planners said so.
“[C]onsensus among interviewees is that San Diego holds such strong market appeal, that many large groups would be willing to work with non-contiguous exhibit space,” a May 2009 report by a task force economic consultant said.
The bottom line is it’s hard to see how a Convention Center expansion and a Chargers stadium fit together, especially as one building.
It would take:
• a major change in expansion planning,
• a major sales job to hoteliers to help fund a stadium,
• a major show of trust in the Chargers to see the process through, and
• a major fight at the ballot box.
The only way it appears that a combined project works is if funding for both the expansion and the stadium run short.
Liam Dillon is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego City Hall and big buildings. What should he write about next?
Please contact him directly at email@example.com or 619.550.5663.
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