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Padres Threaten to Halt New Ballpark

Development: Team officials say they will stop construction Oct. 2 unless San Diego provides more money for the troubled project.

September 20, 2000|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — With the City Council refusing to allocate more cash, the Padres baseball team announced Tuesday that it will soon suspend construction of its new downtown ballpark, a project already snared in politics, litigation and a U.S. attorney's investigation.

The ballpark project, the cornerstone of the largest downtown redevelopment project in city history, was approved by voters in 1998 but 11 lawsuits and a federal investigation have deterred the council from selling as much as $299 million in bonds needed for construction.

Padres President Larry Lucchino on Tuesday informed more than 300 workers at the construction site, where work began last year, in part with interim financing from the city, that without bond proceeds the project will be out of money by Oct. 2.

In June, when the project faced a similar shutdown, the council voted to advance $10 million, matched by $20 million from the Padres.

But after a closed-door meeting Tuesday, council members indicated that there will no additional money until the bonds are sold, which could be months from now.

"It's a setback . . . no question about it," said Lucchino, who called the decision to suspend construction "particularly agonizing."

But former Councilman Bruce Henderson, one of the leading opponents of the project, said he suspects that Lucchino's decision is a bluff to force the council to rescue it.

To complicate matters, the mayor and four of eight council members will leave office in early December, and it is unclear whether their successors will continue to support the project. One mayoral candidate has already accused the other of being too cozy with the Padres.

Resuming construction after a shutdown would add to costs and probably force a money-saving redesign for what team and city officials had hoped would be a model for new, intimate ballparks, Lucchino said.

Padre ownership has said it needs a new ballpark so that the team can become profitable. Without a new venue to replace aging Qualcomm Stadium, majority owner John Moores and Lucchino have suggested that the team may leave town.

The team had hoped to open the 42,000-seat park in a gala celebration July 4, 2002.

The Padres and the City Council have prevailed in all 11 lawsuits brought against the project on issues involving taxation, eminent domain and environmental laws. But the council has been reluctant to sell the bonds while the lawsuits are still in the appeals court.

That reluctance became adamant when the U.S. attorney's office opened an investigation into whether Councilwoman Valerie Stalling had acted improperly in investing in a company headed by Moores while simultaneously voting in favor of the project.

Stalling made a profit of as much as $14,000 by investing in an initial public offering by a company controlled by Moores, a computer software magnate. Such offerings are generally not available to members of the public and can result in large profits with little risk.

Federal prosecutors have interviewed council members but have given no indication when their probe might be completed.

Mayor Susan Golding said she still holds out hope that private financing might be found to keep the project from shutting down Oct. 2.

The ballpark is meant as a catalyst toward redeveloping the lagging eastern portion of downtown with hotels, shopping and restaurants. The Padres are to pay 30%, the city 70%.

"The sadness is that 60% of the people supported this project and it only takes a very few people to block it" in court, Golding said. "It's just not right."

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