Benjamin Frantz, son of Marine Master Sgt. Jeremy Frantz, watches as safety… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)
Reporting from San Diego — The San Diego Chargers went to Miramar Marine Corps Air Station last week for a light practice and a round of autograph signing in front of an appreciative crowd of several hundred Marines and their family members.
Soon the Marines will deploy to a place viewed with dread by many in San Diego: Afghanistan.
There is growing concern locally that the Chargers will also deploy to a place regarded with a mix of trepidation and disgust: Los Angeles.
A decade after the Chargers' ownership suggested that the franchise needs a new stadium if it is to remain in San Diego, there is no plan on the table.
Battered by years of controversy over the city's budget problems — including its burgeoning pension liability — City Council members have busied themselves with projects of immediate concern to their constituents: potholes, library hours, lifeguard staffing and fire protection.
The business and political establishment that once could cut a deal over lunch is no more.
"As San Diego has matured, what we've seen is a decentralization of the power base," said county Supervisor Ron Roberts, who plans to meet soon with Mayor Jerry Sanders and Supervisor Dianne Jacob to see if a private-public proposal can be cobbled together with the Chargers.
The hour appears late.
"It is indisputable that most people in San Diego, whether football fans or not, want the Chargers to stay," said George Mitrovich, president of the City Club of San Diego, the city's leading public forum. "But there's been a collective failure by business, government and the Chargers to achieve what the people want."
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, two competing proposals to build a stadium and lure an NFL team seem to be racing along. Although other teams are mentioned, the top target appears to be the Chargers.
Still, as Roberts and others see it, San Diego retains two enormous advantages. First, there is no indication the Spanos family wants to sell controlling interest in the Chargers, which would seemingly be a requirement for any stadium builder.
And, second, the family has repeatedly said it prefers to remain in San Diego if a replacement for aging Qualcomm Stadium in Mission Valley can be had.
Last week, the Spanos family's spokesman, La Jolla attorney Mark Fabiani, emailed an unequivocal denial to a blogger who wrote that a secret deal had been made to have the Chargers move next year to Los Angeles and shift control to AEG's Philip Anschutz.
If there is lukewarm support for a new stadium, it may boil down to wins and losses. When San Diego voters approved funding for Petco Park in 1998, the Padres were in the midst of a World Series season. The Chargers, despite some winning seasons, last went to the Super Bowl in 1995.
"The Chargers are like the guy who takes the girl to Sizzler for dinner and wonders why she's not impressed," said Carl Luna, a political science professor at San Diego Mesa College. "The Padres took us to Mr. A's," a reference to one of the city's top eating and drinking spots.
The mayor is among those in San Diego who believe the Los Angeles boosters and media are underestimating the financial and regulatory difficulty of building a stadium.
Sanders recently visited Indianapolis, Denver and Kansas City in pursuit of stadium ideas. In each of those cities, the venue used money from a voter-approved tax — an idea that appears dead on arrival in San Diego.
In California, tax proposals require a two-thirds majority to pass. San Diego has a history of strong opposition to taxation. Last year, voters overwhelmingly rejected a half-cent sales tax that the mayor insisted was needed to avoid massive layoffs, including police and firefighters.
The Petco Park proposal was arranged so that only a simple majority was needed. It passed with 60%.
Any proposal that includes a public subsidy — a direct tax, a discounted sale on public land or use of city bonding capacity — will meet with strong local opposition and possible litigation (as did the Petco plan). City officials have promised a public vote by fall 2012.
"A football team is a private business that doesn't share profits with the public, regardless of the public investment," said David Rolland, editor of San Diego City Beat, a weekly newspaper devoted to politics, arts and entertainment.
Considering the city's problems with maintaining public services, "saying no to a general-fund-subsidized sports stadium is a slam-dunk," he said.
Fred Schnaubelt, devoted Libertarian and former City Council member, puts his opposition to public financing in a historical context:
"Since ancient Rome," he said, "bread and circuses have distracted the people from more serious matters and the messes governments have created. Never underestimate an NFL billionaire's ability to get the politicians out front to explain to the masses how rich the city will become and how 'world class' with a new football stadium."