Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa during a press conference held…
Last week, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa got a new job:
Head cheerleader for the NFL.
"It is very clear football is coming back to Los Angeles," the mayor gushed at a pep rally for the proposed downtown stadium, and ESPN.com later quoted him saying he has "never seen the city so united" about getting a pro team.
I decided to put that claim to the test, and what better day to report the results than Super Bowl Sunday?
At Jim's fast-food joint in Boyle Heights, at Philippe's downtown and at Tolliver's barbershop in southwest Los Angeles, everyone I spoke to was well aware of efforts by Anschutz Entertainment Group to build a downtown stadium and lure a team to play in it.
And for the most part, people were thrilled at the prospect — until they heard the details of how the stadium would be financed.
Juan Chavez, a 35-year-old caterer who was having lunch at Jim's, said he wanted a football team "not only because of the sport, but because of the jobs." He was aware that Farmers Insurance had announced it would pay an estimated $700 million to have its name on a stadium next to Staples Center, and the way he'd heard it, the ball field wouldn't cost taxpayers a dime to build.
But is that true?
Tim Leiweke of AEG claims it is, and Villaraigosa has chirped the same tune. But when I asked Chavez if he was aware that AEG wants to lease the valuable downtown property from the city for $1 a year, he choked.
"What?" he asked. "You swear?"
AEG also wants the city to float a $350-million bond, I told Chavez, to tear down the west hall of the Convention Center and rebuild it as part of a stadium that will cost at least $1 billion. When I met with Leiweke a month ago, he said the $350 million would be paid back to the city in taxes generated by the stadium.
I'd rather AEG get its own money and pump those taxes into the general fund, instead of paying off what would essentially be a low-interest loan. And what if AEG goes under, or we get a crummy team and attendance is so low, AEG can't make the payments? Worse yet, what if the team stiffs loyal fans and leaves one day, just like the Raiders and Rams did?
An insurance company would cover the debt, Leiweke has promised.
But what if the insurance company folds and taxpayers are left holding the bag?
Sure, it's possible the stadium project could work out beautifully for Los Angeles, but it's not without risks. Chavez's support seemed a little shakier when he heard that, and his doubts only grew when I told him that AEG honcho Philip Anschutz — the man who wants the cash-strapped city to take risks for his benefit — is No. 34 on the Forbes 400 list with a net worth of $7 billion.
"Now you've got me all confused," said Chavez.
And I didn't even tell him that AEG already got city tax breaks of up to $246 million over 25 years for two hotels at L.A. Live.
Or that AEG execs were lobbying legislators last week to be exempted from provisions of the state's environmental quality act (they want immunity from lawsuits). Lawmakers gave that deal to Ed Roski Jr., who wants to build a stadium in the City of Industry. Roski also happens to be on the Forbes 400 list, at No. 170, with $2.1 billion.
And why not give them both a break? These are probably tough times for billionaires.
At Philippe's, Fabian Farias and his wife, Elisa, were eating lunch with their son Fabian Jr., 21/2, who played with a Raiders football. They went from rah-rah to whoa nelly when they heard the stadium details.
Bernie Kattler already knew the scoop.
"We shouldn't give them one penny," said Kattler, who pooh-poohed AEG's claims that thousands of good jobs would be created. "After they build it," he said, most of the jobs will be part-time and low-paying. "You'll have people making $8 an hour running up and down the hall selling Cokes."
It was more of the same at Tolliver's tonsorial palace, where customers Waymon Martin, Herbert Belt, Sandra Cox and Robert Richard went from hot to not when I laid out the details.
"I would like to have a team here, but I've gotten accustomed to not having one," said owner Lawrence Tolliver, who added that he'd love to have a $1-a-year lease on his property.
Will working-class Angelenos be able to afford tickets at the new stadium? Tolliver asked. If so, will they need a telescope to see the field from beyond the superboxes? If he were negotiating the deal for the city, Tolliver said, and AEG demanded upfront sweeteners, he'd put this question to them:
"Are you going to share the profits?"
When I said a Farmers executive called the company's $700-million investment in the stadium "a great way to give back to the city," there were jeers.
"If they want to give back, why don't they lower everybody's insurance rates?" asked Tolliver.
Bill James, who was waiting for a haircut, said he wasn't interested in getting clipped by politicians or billionaires. If Anschutz wants to pad his fortune in L.A., James said, he should quit asking for charity and get to work on the stadium.
"Be a man," said James, "and build it."