SAN DIEGO -- Hired by the San Diego Chargers in February to oversee the tough task of getting a downtown stadium built here, Fred Maas says he’s been down this road before.
In his role as head of downtown redevelopment for former San Diego mayor Jerry Sanders, Maas helped guide another contentious project through completion, the building of $185 million library downtown.
Maas compared the arduous task of completing a controversial, multi-use facility in downtown San Diego to getting the library built.
“Folks said to me, ‘How can you build a downtown library?’” Maas said. “‘You can spend public funds for that. The design is too ostentatious, and libraries are obsolete.’
“Well, fast-forward to today and it’s one of the most iconic structures in any of the big cities in America. It’s an incredible success. One of the best use of public funds, and although arduous, it has been well worth all of the criticism we got through the process. So I think it’s a lesson in what we’re exploring here.”
The Chargers chose to pursue a multi-use facility and convention center expansion in downtown San Diego through the citizens’ initiative process rather than build a new stadium at Mission Valley, the current site of Qualcomm Stadium.
The Chargers have to qualify a measure for the ballot by March 24. At that time, the team is expected to reveal a finance plan for the project.
Partnering with JMI Reality, the team proposed building a $1.4 billion multi-use facility with a retractable roof that would house a stadium for the Chargers, along with planned expansion of the convention center.
Maas would not reveal the amount the NFL would contribute, but did say the number would be “several hundred million more” than the more than $300 million earmarked for the NFL’s contribution when the project was first conceived.
The project is slated to be city-owned, but privately run -- so the city would not be responsible for annual maintenance costs. At this time, the Chargers are not scheduled to provide an update at the NFL owners meetings in Boca Raton, Florida, at the end of March.
Maas says one of the things being overlooked is by building a stadium downtown, it opens up the Mission Valley site for future development, including the expansion of a riverfront park and off-campus facilities for San Diego State.
Here are some of the questions the Chargers will have to figure out moving forward:
Why did the Chargers select downtown over Mission Valley?
Maas: "As we explored in detail both opportunities -- after having spent a lot of time thinking about both -- we came to the conclusion that there were risks attendant in both locations. But the possibilities of what could be conceived downtown far surpassed the notion of just recreating a 10-day-a-year, football-only stadium on the Qualcomm site."
As part of that decision, did the Chargers consider how a multi-use facility can better compete on a national scale for future events with facilities like Cowboys Stadium, Vikings Stadium and a new facility in Inglewood anchored by the Los Angeles Rams?
Maas: "There’s no question about it. We thought that going back years ago, when Jerry Sanders first suggested this. We always thought that having a multi-use facility that would have some sort of fabric roof could deliver infinitely more opportunities than an open-air stadium. And that was certainly part of the equation.
“We think, if properly delivered with the proper management and marketing, given where San Diego is as a tourist destination, we can attract Final Fours, prize fights and other events, better than the Qualcomm location."
Have the Chargers decided whether to stick with the Citizens’ Plan created by local attorney Cory Briggs, or to implement their own citizens’ initiative effort?
Maas: "We haven’t reached a conclusion yet, and given the accelerated time frame, the good news is people probably will not have to wait very long for what we ultimately conclude.
"We are obviously exploring the legal issues that relate to two-thirds vs. a 50-plus-one vote. Those will be things that will either be litigated, or will be determined by lawyers, or the courts. But what we’re really focused on is delivering a program and a plan that the voters in the city of San Diego can ultimately support, either because of the vision that we communicated to them, or because they are longtime Chargers fans, or because they realize the long-term economic benefits of what a multi-use, multi-facility can deliver. And that’s going to be challenge, but one we’re willing to accept, whether it’s 50-plus-one or two-thirds."
The citizens’ initiative plan is a complex measure. How important is it for you to clearly articulate the message to voters so they know exactly what they are voting for?
Maas: “It’s essential. And that’s going to be our mission. The good news is we’re on an accelerated track here, and we’re going to have to have a ballot prepared for signatures in March. And then we’ll be onwards and upwards with our campaign to communicate to people what we’re really talking about.
“I think a really important aspect of all this is some misunderstanding or miscommunication about what is being discussed. People have a misconception of how a hotel tax means residents of San Diego are going to be taxed to pay for a football stadium and convention center. And nothing can be farther from the truth. What we’re considering right now and looking at is really something completely different, which is a visitors tax, akin to what you pay in New Orleans, Houston or Minneapolis -- a number of other places that have delivered new stadiums -- where visitors and tourists of a city who stay in a hotel for a night will have to pay some additional transient occupancy tax. But if you live in the city of San Diego and are a resident here and don’t stay in a hotel, it is unlikely you’d ever pay a dime to deliver this facility.”
Is there one of those stadium models that more closely aligns with what you hope to accomplish in San Diego?
Maas: “There have been a bunch of them. I’ve been around so many NFL cities. But I know Indianapolis, for example, had that. Minneapolis is going to have it. It was proposed in Missouri. I believe both Houston and New Orleans used a hotel tax. I’m pretty sure Glendale [Arizona] used it. So it’s been a common vehicle to generate dollars for those folks who come to use the facility.
“Generally speaking, the TOT (transient occupancy tax) that we pay here in San Diego is less than you pay in Los Angeles, Anaheim or San Francisco.”
How do you convince San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, county supervisor Ron Roberts and the hotel industry to support a project they’ve been opposed to for several years?
Maas: “The best thing we can offer is an open, honest dialogue. And I look forward to working with both the mayor and the supervisor. I’ve enjoyed a working relationship with both of them for a long time, and we hope to continue that by maintaining a dialogue, and hope that as we begin to work through plans and are sensitive to their issues and concerns, we ultimately reach some commonality and can stand together on a proposal that works for everybody.
“But we’re not dismissive about how difficult that’s going to be, and the hard work we have to do to not only repair relations from the past year, but more importantly to have them understand what we are doing, and how we’re going to go about doing it downtown. Winning their support is ultimately going to be important to winning the public’s support. So we don’t give up.”