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The Convadium May Just Be a Con

The Chargers have touted on several occasions that their proposed facility will operate just like Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium. But a review of that facility’s data shows a heavy reliance on the stadium side of the convadium for events. If taxpayers are expected to pay upward of $1.15 billion for this facility, they should be getting a return on their investment for the convention center side of the convadium.

Full disclosure, I’m a lifelong Chargers fan. I’ve suffered with the team through the lean years and reveled in the joy of playoff runs. I’ve been very vocal about wanting to keep the team in San Diego. Unfortunately, I do not have the luxury of approaching this situation as just a fan. As a City Council member, I have to balance being a fan with the needs of the city.

The Chargers’ initiative proposes building a joint football stadium and convention center expansion. This type of joint facility has come to be known locally as a convadium. It’s a fitting and catchy name to describe the proposed facility and others of its kind. The term convadium, however, may be a name without real meaning. A convadium shouldn’t be defined by how it is designed, it should be defined by how it operates.

The Chargers have touted on several occasions that their proposed facility will operate just like Lucas Oil Stadium, the home of the Indianapolis Colts. I thought it only fair to look at how Lucas Oil Stadium operates. I wanted to get a better understanding of just what taxpayer dollars would be invested in, given that taxpayers are being asked to contribute a minimum of $1.15 billion.

What I found in Lucas Oil Stadium was not encouraging. For convention centers, having an occupancy rate between 50-60 percent is considered an adequately booked facility. At roughly 29 percent average total occupancy from 2011-2014, Lucas Oil Stadium was empty far more often than it was in use. Meanwhile, the neighboring Indiana Convention Center was able to operate at a higher rate of roughly 48 percent average total occupancy.

A review of the event and attendance lists for Lucas Oil Stadium was even less encouraging. The vast majority of attendance, about 98 percent, booked the field for their events. The remaining 2 percent accounted for roughly 20,000 people a year. That is a heavy reliance on the stadium side of the convadium for events. The Chargers, on the other hand, would likely argue that’s a good thing. The field is meant to double as convention space, after all, and this should indicate that the field is being utilized for this. The truth is it’s generally not.

Looking at the types of events that used the Indianapolis facility, it becomes clear that it essentially operates as just a stadium and doesn’t really offer much on the convention side of the ledger. The majority of attendance and events are from sports and entertainment-type bookings. Sporting events ranging from professional, collegiate and high school football, to NCAA basketball games, marching band competitions, monster truck rallies and supercross races made up the vast majority of attendance at the facility.

These are all wonderful events, but they can all take place at a pure stadium facility. None of these events needs convention space to be held there. A heavy reliance on sports and entertainment events also means that revenue from those events won’t go back to the convention center side of the facility. According to the Chargers’ initiative, the revenue will go toward stadium operations and maintenance, which will essentially subsidize a portion of the Chargers rent. But most importantly, few and far between were events that could be considered conventions or trade shows.

The event lists included dozens of wedding-related events like ceremonies and rehearsal dinners, high school graduations and proms, sorority and fraternity events and endless tours of the facility. These are not events that will bring in visitors to San Diego. These are not events that will drive TOT revenue for the city to help pay for the convadium. These are local events with local attendance, and none of them are dependent on convention space for their needs.

If taxpayers are going to be expected to pay upward of $1.15 billion for this facility, they should be getting a return on their investment for the convention center side of the convadium. The facility should be able to support actual convention business in order to earn being called a convadium. If Lucas Oil Stadium is the model, then it won’t accomplish that.

In reviewing the Chargers’ plan, I made a commitment to keep an open mind and be thorough with my research. I wanted to avoid rhetoric and be able to provide thoughtful and meaningful responses to support whatever decision I made. The white paper I am releasing along with this op-ed is the culmination of that process. Due to the findings I’ve made, I cannot support the Chargers’ Citizen’s Initiative at this time. The Chargers need to provide data that shows how another comparable convadium facility works and provides value on the convention center side of the project. The mayor asked for this specific data and the Chargers chose not to provide it. The data obtained from Lucas Oil Stadium may explain why. If they cannot produce a working example of a convadium, then this proposal is nothing more than a stadium.

The fan in me hopes they can prove me wrong.

Scott Sherman is a member of the San Diego City Council, representing District 7.

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