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We can build it, but will they come?

AEG wants a $1.5-billion stadium in downtown Los Angeles for an NFL team. AEG says the stadium wouldn't cost taxpayers anything, but that's not entirely true.

January 09, 2011|Steve Lopez

Anybody out there miss having a National Football League team in Los Angeles?

If so, take heart. There's a chance that we could steal a team from a lesser city in the near future. And if AEG President Tim Leiweke has his way with City Hall, the team would play in a brand-new, $1.5-billion stadium next to the downtown L.A. Convention Center.

But would that be a good thing?

That question landed me in Leiweke's office at L.A. Live on Friday morning, trying to find out where things stand. And, more important, whether taxpayers were likely to get fleeced in the deal.

Now, to be honest, this all still looks like a long shot, and I could go either way on a pro football team. I like the fact that with so much going on in Greater Los Angeles, our civic pride is sufficient without benefit of the NFL's cavalcade of concussions.

On the other hand, I like football, and it would be nice to have another pro team to grouse about during the months that the McCourt-owned Dodgers aren't playing.

But what would the stadium cost us?

Nothing, Leiweke insisted.

In fact, he leaned forward in his seat, looked me in the eyes and promised that this would be "a completely private stadium." AEG, he said, which is owned by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, would not consider taking "a penny from taxpayers."

That's sort of true and sort of not.

Leiweke wants to lease city land worth millions for $1 a year, and he wants the city to float $350 million in bonds to help finance the project, which he promises to repay with revenue from the stadium. To some critics, including proponents of an Ed Roski-proposed alternative stadium in City of Industry, that's a giveaway of public money and taxpayers would be on the hook.

Nonsense, says Leiweke. AEG would guarantee to pay off the $350 million, and because the company is worth billions, its promise is good.

Well, if AEG is worth billions, I don't get why it needs a $350-million municipal bond. And what if an NFL team came to L.A. but left in a year or two for a better deal in another city? Anyone remember the Raiders and Rams?

AEG would still pay up, Leiweke said. What if AEG goes bankrupt?

Then an insurance clause would kick in and pay off the debt, he said.

Such promises have been made before in cities where taxpayers got left holding the bag, with stadiums sitting empty but for the echo of boos. The NFL and its wealthy franchise owners love to extort local communities, threatening to move if they don't get a ransom of public concessions to pad their profits.

But L.A. has next to nothing in the way of sweeping political leadership and vision, so people like Leiweke naturally try to fill the void. For him and his NFL-dreaming partner, Casey Wasserman, a football stadium is just one piece of a grander scheme.

They want to rebuild the west hall of the underperforming convention center and link it to the new stadium, which would have a retractable roof for all-weather events. The complex would host supersized conventions, concerts, soccer and football, all this on the same "campus" that includes the Nokia Theater, Staples Center and the other pieces of L.A. Live.

To my taste, L.A. Live is a "movie set" canyon of commerce lacking in character or distinction, but it's become a major destination and a job center, with big-draw activities nearly every night. The football stadium would add to the party, Leiweke said, estimating that along with 10 NFL games, an additional 40 events would be booked annually.

"L.A. would be the greatest destination for events in the world," bellowed Leiweke, arguing that the new project would attract up to five more hotels, create 25,000 jobs, and allow the city to host Super Bowls and the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament, among other mega-events.

L.A. went from the 26th convention city in the country to 15th after L.A. Live and the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton went up, Leiweke said. With a convention center upgrade and football stadium, says Mr. Booster, L.A. can be the first or second convention city in the country.

Yeah, maybe. Let's not forget, though, that developers of sports and entertainment projects have been known to oversell their projects and inflate the benefits.

I will say, though, that Leiweke makes a decent argument that L.A.'s greatest economic growth potential may be in tourism, conventions, and sports and entertainment, and it would be foolish for the city not to seriously consider playing ball with a private company willing to take on most of the risk.

But only so long as city officials, and not AEG officials, call the shots.

Only so long as AEG goes through the normal environmental impact reviews and pays the cost of needed infrastructure improvements, including some relief from the guaranteed traffic nightmares.

And only so long as every last detail of any deal is scrutinized by the city to ensure the protection of the public and the generation of new revenue.

Don't worry, said Jan Perry, the L.A. councilwoman who last week called for city officials to begin talking details with AEG. Perry promised "meticulous and comprehensive review" of every aspect of the project, including risks and benefits.

She told me "the project would have to be funded solely from new revenues associated with the project and there would have to be protection to taxpayers and the general fund, and the proposals would have to generate revenue above and beyond that which is currently generated by the site."

I should hope so, and I'll be watching.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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