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When the Chamber of Commerce endorsed the Chargers plan for a new stadium in downtown San Diego, one member of its board of directors abstained. We wanted to find out why and ended up with an exclusive interview with Padres Chairman Ron Fowler.
Fowler said many times he wants the Chargers to stay. But the Chargers' plan to build a new home next door to Petco Park has kicked up issues between San Diego's two major sports teams. Namely, parking, traffic and the possibility of some big digital billboards in the Padres backyard.
Not long ago, leaders of the Chargers and the Padres met to discuss a problem.
The Chargers are asking voters to approve a joint convention center-stadium – a convadium – in East Village, a facility that could host the football team and, say, a boat show. They’re eyeing Tailgate Park, currently home to about 1,000 of the Padres’ best parking spots.
The Padres lease those spots from the city. There are 16 years left on that lease and the team has an option to renew it for up to 10 more years. The contract, though, acknowledges the city may want to do something else with that parking lot in the future. If it is developed into something bigger, the city is on the hook to replace the spots the Padres lose.
That could be a nightmare for the baseball team and the city. The Padres benefited from a major public investment in Petco Park. Demanding taxpayers come to the table again, to build a new parking garage, could get very awkward.
It appears that the Chargers’ executives don’t see it as a big deal. They believe they will solve this problem with the facilities they want to build.
The Chargers, after all, would only play in the facility about 10 times a year. Surely they can build their own parking that will satisfy the Padres’ needs too.
The Padres want to get that in writing.
Ron Fowler, chairman of the Padres ownership group, pointed out to me that the Chargers facility is meant to be both a football stadium and a convention center. The conventions it hosts would, ostensibly, need those spots too – and not just for 10 days out of the year.
So the Padres and Chargers were meeting because the Padres wanted assurances – maybe a formal memorandum of understanding. If voters approved the Chargers initiative, the Padres’ executives wanted a deal in place to ensure their parking spots would be there in the future.
“The meeting ended with ‘trust us,'” Fowler told me in an expansive interview about his team’s concerns with the Chargers proposal.
Fowler and the Padres want the Chargers to stay in San Diego. He has said that many times. He and his family are close friends with Chargers President Dean Spanos and his family.
But they need to work some things out.
“There’s no anti-Chargers feeling at all,” he said. “We want to keep the Chargers in San Diego. We want to make sure the ability of fans to get to Petco and park is not harmed and we want to ensure that everyone in East Village gets a solution that maybe nobody is happy with but everyone can live with.”
Fowler’s concerns are not trivial. In addition to parking, Fowler and the Padres are worried about traffic issues – problems that already exist in East Village. The team is producing its own traffic study right now, in fact.
They are also worried about a provision in the Chargers initiative that has, so far, gotten very little attention: If passed, the initiative would allow the Chargers to put up two, very large, digital billboards on the outside of the convadium. The signs could shine until 2 a.m. every night.
They aren’t depicted in the Chargers’ many renderings of the proposed facility.
The signs could cause problems both for East Village residents and the Padres. After all, corporate sponsors might prefer to advertise on those big Chargers billboards facing the rest of the city, rather than signs pointing to the inside of Petco Park with the Padres.
The city doesn’t allow the Padres to put up billboards on the outside of Petco Park. In fact, very few opportunities for that exist in the city as a whole because of San Diego’s restrictive sign ordinance. The Chargers initiative would supersede that law.
Fowler told me if the city allowed digital signs like that for the Chargers, it should allow it for the Padres. However, he doesn’t want either to happen.
“My preference is no signs like that should be available because it’s not in the best interest of East Village,” Fowler said.
After the meeting between the teams ended with the “trust us” from the Chargers, the Padres had a decision to make. Padres CEO Mike Dee is on the board of directors of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, which was about to vote on whether to endorse the Chargers’ ballot initiative. The initiative would raise the hotel-room tax and fund the convadium right next to Petco Park.
Fowler met with Jerry Sanders, CEO of the Chamber. I had heard Fowler asked Sanders not to let the endorsement happen.
That’s not true, Fowler told me. In fact, he said, he knew the Chamber would endorse the initiative because of the close relationship Sanders has with Chargers special advisor Fred Maas.
“I asked him ‘Do you think these issues are sufficiently addressed by the Chargers?” Fowler said of his meeting with Sanders. He said Sanders told him that supporting the Chargers now was the best way to assure the team stays in San Diego.
And then, Fowler said, the two longtime allies spent the rest of the meeting talking about how they might help keep the Chargers in town when, and if, the initiative fails.
The Chamber’s spokeswoman, Elizabeth Fitzsimons, confirmed the meeting took place.
“Ron [Fowler] shared his concerns about infrastructure and that they were working with the Chargers on that,” she said. “He said he was supportive of the Chargers. The concerns he and others outlined informed the endorsement and the list of considerations that were included in the letter sent to the Chargers.”
The letter she’s talking about is this one to Spanos the Chamber sent after its endorsement. It said the Chamber supported the Chargers and requested the team address the Padres’ concerns about the loss of parking, the signage and infrastructure.
The Padres’ Dee ended up abstaining from the endorsement vote. “All we’re looking to do is get more information,” Fowler said.
The Chargers declined to comment specifically about the Padres concerns. Maas sent a written statement:
“We have enjoyed a good relationship with the Padres over many years. We look forward to working with them in the future at our new facility downtown.”
The parking dilemma is now turning into a rallying point for opposition to the Chargers plan. Councilman Chris Cate, one of the principals in the official campaign committee set up to fight the Chargers initiative, brought up the city’s liability for Tailgate Park on our podcast last week – the city has to replace the Padres’ parking, and downtown real estate isn’t cheap. Doing so could get expensive.
I asked him for comment about the tension between the two San Diego sports teams.
“Part of the reason the Chargers initiative is flawed is because it was developed in private, without any input from the City, key stakeholders, or the communities that would be most impacted by a stadium and convention center annex,” Cate said in a written statement.
“The Padres and the City were successful in getting Petco Park approved partly because they worked together,” he said. “That process was collaborative, open and transparent, and, unfortunately, that’s not what we’re dealing with now.”