Any discussion about building a new Chargers stadium must eventually refer to the decision by San Diego voters in 1998 to build what is now Petco Park. For perspective, let’s review how that proposal came about.

fix san diego opinionIn 1995, then-Mayor Susan Golding and the City Council agreed to expand and close off Jack Murphy Stadium to provide the additional seating and amenities the Chargers had requested. The team also gained control over all advertising revenue at the stadium.

But Padres owners John Moores and Larry Lucchino claimed the Chargers’ new agreement made it financially unfeasible for the baseball team to continue using the stadium after its lease expired in 1999.

So Moores and Lucchino asked Golding to appoint a citizens task force to validate their claim, and agreed to open their books as part of a review process. After consulting with a variety of experts and reviewing the Padres’ financial statements, the task force confirmed that the Padres’ continued use of what had become Qualcomm Stadium was no longer viable.

Golding appointed a second citizens task force to recommend a location and financing plan for a new baseball-only facility. This involved several public hearings and sparked a spirited citywide debate. Moores wanted the ballpark to be adjacent to the bayfront along Harbor Drive; Lucchino preferred a Mission Valley site.

But Golding argued a public investment in such a facility could only be justified if it provided significant public benefits. She recommended a site in the blighted warehouse district now known as the East Village, where the ballpark could provide a catalyst for revitalization and private investment.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

I had been hired by the Padres in anticipation of a public vote on whatever plan the City Council eventually approved. Our internal public opinion polls showed limited support for a publicly financed ballpark by itself, but strong support for public investment in a project that would revitalize East Village and complete the city’s downtown redevelopment efforts, which had historically enjoyed broad support from San Diego voters.

The Padres owners embraced the task force and mayor’s recommendations. The team owners negotiated an agreement that required a significant investment from the team — not only in the ballpark, but in private development of the surrounding neighborhood. The agreement made them responsible for all of the project’s cost overruns.

All told, land acquisition and construction for Petco Park cost $456.8 million: $225 million financed with municipal bonds repaid by hotel taxes; $57.8 million from redevelopment funds generated within the project area; $21 million from the Port of San Diego and $153 million from the Padres (not including their substantial investment in private development projects in East Village).

That agreement went before San Diego voters in November 1998, and was approved by 60 percent of voters. A series of lawsuits delayed construction, but Petco Park eventually opened in April 2004. Since then, public investment in it has spurred more than $2 billion in private investment, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax revenues and transforming East Village into one of San Diego’s most exciting and vibrant neighborhoods.

Much has changed since 1998, including the demise of redevelopment in California, the Great Recession and a growing skepticism about the city’s ability to manage its finances.

But the underlying principles that guided that decision have stayed the same. Any public investment in a facility designed to accommodate a profit-making enterprise — like the Padres or the Chargers — must have the public’s benefit as its primary objective. Given the city’s still-tenuous finances, that benefit must include a positive impact on city finances.

Most discussions about a new Chargers football stadium have started with the premise that the team will leave if it doesn’t get a new stadium. Although diehard Chargers fans may consider this enough reason for public investment, I don’t believe a majority of San Diego voters will.

Instead, the team and city need to involve the public by creating a plan through a transparent, public process. And the plan’s primary objective has to be maximizing the stadium’s benefits for the city and its taxpayers.

The ultimate solution would include a multi-use complex (stadium, arena and other entertainment venues) that would attract non-football events, not to mention attendees, 200-plus days a year.

It would provide the foundation for a new privately financed entertainment district. Whatever part of the city this ends up in could see the same surge of activity and development East Village did as a result of the Padres’  investment — if we play our cards right.

Tom Shepard is a San Diego-based political consultant. Shepard’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

    This article relates to: Chargers Stadium, Fix San Diego, News, Opinion, Redevelopment, Sports

    Written by Catherine Green

    Catherine Green is deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handles daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects. You can contact her directly at or 619.550.5668. Follow her on Twitter: @c_s_green.

    David Benz
    David Benz subscriber

    Tom Shepard is your typical snake oil salesman.  He knows stadiums are money losers for taxpayers.

    Fabiani once again said today that the Chargers want the city to sell all of the stadium and sports arena land and contribute those funds to a downtown stadium.  Are San Diegans stupid enough to fall for that?  Not to mention that about half of the qualcomm stadium site is owned by the water authority and not the city.

    He thinks a stadium will only cost $800 to $900 million, that's a complete farce and ignores the $1 billion of infrastructure costs on the downtown site.

    FoulConner would love to give more city funds to his downtown republicans.  San Diego would have been better off keeping "chester the molester" instead of electing a financial rapist.

    Robert Cohen
    Robert Cohen subscriber

    @David Benz  Faulconer is on record as being against the sale of city land to pay for a new stadium.  But if negotiations ever get started in earnest who knows what will be put on the table.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    If the Chargers hired Tom Sheppard to run a campaign for a new stadium, they'd probably get one. Tom has shown he's capable of convincing San Diegan's to vote for just about anything or anybody.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    First of all, the “decision by the voters” in 1998 was based on flat out lies from then-mayor Susan Golding.  I remember the ad infinitum “It’s more than a ballpark” drum beat.  It sure turned out to be true; it’s also a millstone of $11 mil annually right out of the general fund because Golding’s “2500 new hotel rooms” were a fantasy from the start and she knew it.  

    Mr. Shepard’s claim of “hundreds of millions on new tax revenues” is invisible to this skeptic, and if it’s true I’d sure like to see the numbers.  I know two things about this situation.  First, the deal was sold to the public on the basis that a flood of new T.O.T. revenue would easily pay the bond debt service, NOT subsequent ancillary development.  Second, East Village is not “ of San Diego’s most exciting and vibrant new neighborhoods....”.  This is nonsense.

    This tale reads like a volley in the campaign to sell the public on a Chargers’ stadium, not simply a history lesson.  Shepard has a strong track record getting candidates elected, but this one is going to be a very hard sale.  Why, when virtually every other publicly financed stadium deal has turned out to be a loser, should the public believe that “this time it's different”?

    I gotta ask, what was Shepard’s fee for this piece, and who paid it?  He doesn’t do anything for free.

    Brian Peterson
    Brian Peterson subscriber

    At a 2009 meeting of Municipal Officials for Redevelopment Reform Stanford University Professor Roger Noll spoke on the subject of public subsidies of sports stadiums.He stated that every sports stadium is a money loser for its city except one—Fenway Park in Boston.According Noll, Fenway is an economic benefit for Boston, because of its small footprint, and concessions are off site.I doubt this is the Chargers’ plan.And besides, isn’t Fenway like 100 years old?

    Augmented Ballot
    Augmented Ballot subscriber

    "Significant investment from the team — not only in the ballpark, but in private development of the surrounding neighborhood."

    Those are very profitable private investments by Moores, made much more so by substantial, ongoing public investment. Thanking Moores for having "the public’s benefit as [his] primary objective" is insulting to everyone concerned. Please stop.

    Robert Cohen
    Robert Cohen subscriber

    The biggest misconception about public financing of stadiums is the claim that the city can financially benefit from it's "investment".  Study after study has shown this to be false.  As nice as Petco Park is, the private investment around it still exhibits many empty storefronts in the new buildings and very little foot traffic during non-game hours.  The  honest position for the city to take if it decides to once again get into the public financing game, is not that a new facility will make money for the city or have a positive impact on the local economy, but rather the intangible argument that it makes us "feel good."   Is it nice that the Chargers play in S.D.?  I think most people would say yes to that.  Does that have "value"?  Maybe.   But a vote, yea or nea, should not be based on what a stadium will do for the local economy because in the over all scheme of things, the impact on the economy will be negligible, if that.  The more honest approach by the city in trying to "sell" to the voters the more use of public money, is that a new stadium is nice to have.  Then the voters can decide if that's true.

    David Crossley
    David Crossley subscriber

    Didn't the Padres readily sign off to give the Chargers all advertising revenues in the expanded Qualcomm stadium?  Of course they couldn't make it financially--it was that gamble that paid off in Petco Park.  And TOT revenues were supposed to pay off the ballpark bonds--except Moores got the city to allow him to build more condos and less hotels, which now means the general fund must be used to cover those bond payments.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    When the Pension underfunding Came to light one of the Arguments justifying it was "the public wanted these downtown improvements such as the New Petco park".

    Funny. I never read underfunding in the ballot proposition. (voted against it anyways out of principal that government has no business being in the sports business).

    The public should be wary of any proposal that requires public monies especially if the Charger stadium were to be built downtown. Not only could you kiss good by to tailgating but almost certainly the Taxpayer would be left holding the bag....again.

    Kinda like charlie brown and the foot ball.