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Backers Bet on 2nd Tier of Sports

As the $150-million Home Depot complex in Carson opens, stakes are high for officials and investors. For athletes, it's a dream realized.

June 01, 2003|David Wharton and Jean Merl | Times Staff Writers

For athletes who play second fiddle on the American scene -- soccer players, shot putters, cyclists -- the new Home Depot Center in Carson is, as one of them put it, "a mecca."

The complex, which opens today, features matching soccer and tennis stadiums, a world-class track, practice fields and, soon, the continent's only indoor velodrome.

Rarely have 85 acres and $150 million in private money been devoted to a facility outside the realm of football, basketball and baseball.

But if athletes are sold on the Home Depot Center, it must prove itself in other ways.

Residents wonder if it will be the kind of neighbor that brings too much noise and traffic. They are suspicious of deals cut to lease state-owned land for the project.

Civic leaders, meanwhile, are waiting to see if it can attract shops and restaurants to their overlooked suburb, best known for years of political scandals and as a mooring site for the Goodyear blimp. If the center succeeds, it could boost their prospects for an NFL team.

Even the owners -- the same company that built Staples Center -- have questions. Such a venture, sports business experts say, has never been profitable.

"People within our own company thought we were nuts," said Tim Leiweke, president and chief executive of AEG. "No one knows what to expect."

Four years ago, Leiweke set out with modest plans to build a 27,000-seat stadium for the Galaxy, which had played in the yawning Rose Bowl.

AEG leased a chunk of the Cal State Dominguez Hills campus near the intersection of the Harbor and San Diego freeways. Then, wanting to make use of the facility beyond soccer season, Leiweke had what he called a "goofy idea": Could a temporary tennis court be laid over the turf?

The architects said no, and instead gave him an estimate for what would become a 13,000-seat tennis stadium. At the same time, the U.S. Soccer Federation announced its search for a new training site.

Leiweke began to imagine the project in a different vein. All he had to do was convince his boss, billionaire financier Philip F. Anschutz.

For a man who owns, not only an arena but also the Kings, Galaxy and other Major League Soccer teams, Anschutz is not a particularly avid fan, his executives say. His wife is the one who cheers loudest at hockey games.

Still, Anschutz cottoned to Leiweke's proposal. He envisioned a complex bustling with athletes ranging from kids to professionals.

So Anschutz, who has not spoken to reporters in years, became uncharacteristically involved -- more so than with the $407-million Staples Center -- overseeing everything from construction to landscaping. "He had certain flowers and trees he felt would fit well," Leiweke said.

More and more tenants came aboard, each with specific needs.

The soccer federation required practice fields. So did the San Diego Chargers, who will hold summer camp on the grounds. The national federations for tennis, cycling and track agreed to establish training sites there.

As the project became an unusually large Olympic-style center, AEG lured major events, ranging from beach volleyball to women's pro tennis. The company also booked music concerts in the main stadium.

Residents grew worried.

"The number of events kept changing," said Rita Boggs, a city planning commissioner. "So many things that were not included in the first place."

Boggs filed a lawsuit that unsuccessfully challenged the environmental impact report. Another was filed in July 2001 by homeowners in University Heights, whose backyards bump against the complex. They were led by Gil Smith, a former Carson mayor and among those who established the university in the mid-1960s.

"How close are we?" the soft-spoken Smith asked. "I can throw a rock into the soccer stadium from my property."

The suit was settled six months later, with residents winning a number of concessions. Now they say AEG has failed to comply.

Threat of Hooligans

The roar of bulldozers and trucks has resonated through the neighborhood, Smith claims, and dust has coated swimming pools. The soccer stadium, an impressive structure topped by billowing white canopies, only reinforces the threat of impending crowds.

It doesn't help that the principal tenant is a soccer team. Some residents cannot help but envision hooligans and empty beer cans strewn across their lawns.

"It has created a lot of anxiety," Smith said. "We feel like we're in real trouble here."

As a member of a university advisory board, Smith has additional concerns about the school's devoting so much of its 346 acres to the venture, leaving the university little room to grow.

AEG has programming rights over the 85 acres of facilities it built. In addition, it has access to 40 acres of school facilities and parking lots.

Some on campus worry about becoming "Home Depot U." President James E. Lyons acknowledged these concerns: "The magnitude gets kind of frightening."

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