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A Chargers Loyalty Test Courses Through San Diego Business Community, Lands at Mayor

The Chargers are treating Measure C, their plan to build a convadium, as a kind of loyalty test – a plea that San Diego leaders show their support for the football team. But not since the effort to move the airport has San Diego’s business community and elite leaders been so split on a giant civic decision. It’s all left Mayor Kevin Faulconer paralyzed.

In lunches, meeting rooms and over email and drinks, leaders of various San Diego institutions and associations have spent weeks trying to decide whether to publicly support Measure C, the convadium plan the region’s restless professional football team is promoting.

Measure C would permanently change San Diego’s East Village and disrupt the visitor industry, rearranging it for decades to come.

It has been a curious exercise. Most of the people trying to decide whether to support Measure C assume voters will reject it. That it will not get the two-thirds support it needs to become law. While some argument remains that the team could get a court to rule that a simple majority is enough, even that is no slam dunk.

Yet, the pressure to support the measure is still intense. Chargers adviser and longtime downtown business leader Fred Maas and former Mayor Jerry Sanders are leading the push. They have made it a kind of loyalty test – a plea that San Diego leaders show their support for the football team.

In countless meetings, sources have related to me, Maas and Sanders have said it was important to show support.

Maas and Sanders persuaded even Biocom, an entity that rarely weighs in on civic issues, to support the measure.

The Spanos family has not laid out what level of support they want to see but they’re obviously thinking about it.

Thursday, Dean Spanos told the Union-Tribune he will be looking at the vote even if the measure fails.

“I think the percentage tells me a lot. If we only get 30 or 35 percent, that tells you one thing. If we get 60 percent, that tells you something else. I’m anxious to see what’s going to happen on Nov. 8,” Spanos told the newspaper.

After the Chamber of Commerce endorsed the measure, the loyalty test began to emerge. Board members asked Spanos what he would do if he lost, and he said he’d want to see who supported it.

“If there’s decent support for it in the business community and the voters, it will signal to the Chargers they are wanted in the community and we should all regroup if it doesn’t pass and figure out another option,” said Aimee Faucett, vice president of the Chamber of Commerce, after the group endorsed the plan.

But not since the effort to move the airport to Miramar Marine Corps Air Station has San Diego’s business community and elite leaders been so split on a giant civic decision.

Led by San Diego Councilman Chris Cate, and now three other members of the City Council, including the incoming representative for downtown, a countermovement is pleading with groups not to sign on to the pledge of support for the Chargers. A renowned architect, Rob Quigley, and activists in Barrio Logan have all lined up against it.

The Hotel Motel Association and Tourism Authority jumped into full opposition, funding a study that they say destroys the case that the convadium would help attract enough visitors to San Diego to offset the investment taken primarily out

“Many of the people I’ve talked to about the concerns we have say, frankly, they just want to support the Chargers,” said Joe Terzi, CEO of the San Diego Tourism Authority. “They say, ‘We’re supporting the Chargers and you should too, and don’t worry about it because it’s not going to pass anyway.’ For us not to share our concerns would not be appropriate.”

All this has left Mayor Kevin Faulconer paralyzed. While he’s advocated for other city measures and raised money for a state ballot proposition, he’s been unable or unwilling to share his preference on Measure C, which would have long-term, extraordinary consequences on the city he manages.

In what looked like a prelude to his decision, Friday, the city’s Downtown Partnership, a large group of business leaders, endorsed the measure. But they outlined many reservations.

Spanos, in a letter, pledged that the team would drop the project unless they could please the mayor, even if it passes.

The move seems like a precursor to an endorsement from Faulconer. He may now have this pledge, but the measure’s biggest ingredients – the tax hike, location, size – will all be etched into city law, were the measure to pass. He will be on the record supporting a major increase to the city’s hotel room tax, the first time he has supported a tax hike.

Yet, his reluctance to embrace the measure until now indicates he does not want it to pass or think it will. If he did want it to pass, he would have, you know, tried to help it pass.

But he also has been unwilling to outright oppose it. The pressure to do that has been coming in. Recently the Strategic Roundtable, a group of retired CEOs convened by the Economic Development Corp. voted to have their chairman, Bill Geppert, visit the mayor and express critical concerns they had.

Geppert said the group simply decided there were too many unanswered questions.

It came after weeks of internal tension in the normally like-minded group. One member, former EDC executive Julie Meier-Wright even rounded up signatures from business leaders across the region for a letter urging the mayor to oppose the deal.

Signing on was Irwin Jacobs, the co-founder of Qualcomm and the most prominent philanthropist in town.

Spanos, the Chargers’ owner, has seen all of this. It can’t be sitting well. He watched the city rally, 18 years ago, for the Padres’ plan to remake downtown. This year, things couldn’t be more different. At the start of the football season, someone from the Chargers told CBS Sports that the team would likely be moving: “The San Diego Chargers brass is almost resigned to the fact that a November ballot initiative for a new downtown stadium will not go in their favor, and that a move to Los Angeles is inevitable, according to team sources.”

The Chargers didn’t challenge the story.

From board room to board room, the message from Spanos and his lieutenants has been clear: He’s taking a measurement. Are you with him or against him?

And for the mayor, the decision has become one of whether to submit.

Most of the people in the city’s old business circles tell me that they hope Measure C’s failure will redirect attention to building a new stadium in Mission Valley.

But the mayor will be on the record supporting the broad outlines of the convadium plan, with a handful of periphery concerns the Chargers say they can address. And the Chargers are already saying they won’t discuss Mission Valley.

Either the Chargers are merely forcing the mayor to bow because it’s fun to muscle a mayor into submission or they’re setting up a new round of interesting negotiations for downtown.

Perhaps Spanos just legitimately wants to see a lot of people show his enterprise love.

But like his football team, he won some. And lost a bunch of others.

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