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California and the West

San Diego Learns to Play the Game

Sports: Plan for a new baseball park stirs far less strife than football stadium expansion. Padres' winning season and the proposal's redevelopment angle may help explain why.


SAN DIEGO — Nearly two years after an angry debate over public money and professional football rocked the city, the discourse over a similar subject has been remarkably polite.

On Nov. 3, San Diego voters will decide whether to help build a new 41,000-seat downtown baseball park for the high-flying Padres. About 70% of the project's $411-million price tag would be covered by public money.

The discussion leading to the ballot measure has been energetic but noncombative. People are not hissing in each other's faces. There is little sense that the fate of this sunny commonwealth by the sea is at stake.

Not so two years ago. Then, a ballot referendum drive, a lawsuit and what seemed to be a vacuum of political leadership at a crucial moment brought the city to the edge of meltdown.

The raucous debate over expanding the city-owned stadium to accommodate the wishes of the Chargers raged for weeks--until a judge killed the anti-expansion suit. A referendum was avoided only when the Qualcomm wireless communications company paid for a portion of the project in exchange for having its name on the stadium.

The baseball park plan carries a higher price tag than the football deal. Plus, to the naked eye at least, the city already has a suitable baseball site, the expanded Qualcomm Stadium.

But the Proposition C discussion has little of the ear-splitting volume of the debate in late 1996 and early 1997.

The attorney who sued to block the football stadium expansion is the leading spokesman for the baseball park push. The talk show talkers have cooled their jets.

An academic expert who has written critically of the financial relationship between cities and sports teams has come to San Diego to endorse Proposition C as a good deal for the city and for taxpayers. A lawsuit against the proposal was tossed out faster than a batter arguing with a grumpy umpire over a called third strike.

The ballpark lawsuit held none of the high moral ground of the football lawsuit. The football suit was meant to force a public vote, the baseball suit to block one.

With the suit swept away, San Diego residents will vote on the public-private plan to both build a smallish ballpark--akin to Baltimore's Camden Yards and Cleveland's Jacobs Field--and redevelop a sagging part of downtown with hotels, shops and housing.

Public opinion polls suggest that Proposition C has a small lead--which would mean San Diego voters are resisting the national trend of rejecting deals to build facilities for sports teams.

Ballpark boosters, as well as disinterested observers, agree that the main reason the plan is having an easier time than the stadium expansion is that, in effect, city officials have proved that they are not repeating past mistakes.

"They learned the lessons of Qualcomm Stadium," said Steve Erie, political science professor at UC San Diego. "This is a much more politically savvy group running this than the Qualcomm deal."

For openers, the Qualcomm arrangement was a straight-out plan to expand the stadium to keep the Chargers from leaving.

Nothing can bring out the critics faster than the idea of using public funds to build or expand a facility solely for a millionaire sports team owner--in this case, the Chargers' Alex Spanos, whose public image is heavy with grouchiness.

The motto of the Proposition C campaign--funded by a $1-million contribution from the Padres--is "More than just a ballpark."

By linking the ballpark to a redevelopment plan, officials have wedded it to one of San Diego's sources of civic pride: the Lazarus-like return of downtown. Two decades ago downtown was a jumble of all-night movie theaters, tattoo parlors and sawdust restaurants. The symbol of downtown was a going-out-of-business sign.

Now, downtown is agleam with tourist hotels, nightspots, trendy restaurants, the festive Horton Plaza shopping center, a waterfront convention center, upscale condo projects and new high-rises--thanks, in large part, to the city's redevelopment efforts. The eastern section, where the ballpark is planned, remains largely warehouses and vacant lots.

"All the focus groups and polling that I've seen," said former Councilman Scott Harvey, "suggest that people are very excited about completing the last piece of downtown with a ballpark."

(As a result of the focus groups, ballpark boosters have learned never to say "stadium," because it still reeks of the football flap.)

Redevelopment matters are complicated, involving revenue projections and discussion of the interplay among hotel and motel taxes, property taxes and tax-free bonds. Dueling econometric theories are not the stuff of which talk show ratings are made, and thus much of the Proposition C debate has been dry.

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