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Tight city funds could force Chargers to find new home

SAN DIEGO -- Cash-strapped San Diego doesn't have the money to help the Chargers build a new stadium, mayor Jerry Sanders said Friday, opening the door for Southern California's only NFL team to leave the city it has called home for 45 years.

Sanders said he plans to ask the City Council to amend the Chargers' lease to allow the team to begin looking at sites elsewhere in San Diego County before the end of the year. If the team fails to find a new home in the county before Jan. 1, the Chargers would be free to negotiate a deal anywhere in the nation.

The Chargers can leave San Diego after the 2008 season if they pay off the approximately $60 million in bonds the city issued in 1997 to expand Qualcomm Stadium, which the city built for the team in 1967.

"I do not think it would be prudent or honest for me to say to taxpayers, 'We can't resurface our roadways, but we can finance a stadium,'" the mayor said.

San Diego is facing what the mayor called a "financial and managerial crisis," which includes a $1.4 billion city employee pension fund deficit and federal investigations into city finances.

Sanders admitted he was making a "calculated judgment" that the team would remain in the county.

"I believe the Chargers are committed to San Diego, and I want to keep them," he said. "But I think the best shot at doing that is by releasing them from the lease agreement."

The Chargers' negotiator, Mark Fabiani, said the smaller cities of Oceanside, Chula Vista and National City to the north and south of San Diego have approached the team, along with a private investor whose identity Fabiani wouldn't disclose.

"It's tough to make a deal like this in seven months, but it's enough time to get a sense of whether something can get done or not," Fabiani said. "This does give us an opportunity to really figure out whether there's anything promising out there."

The Chargers have been in San Diego since 1961, the year after they started playing in Los Angeles under the ownership of hotel magnate Barron Hilton.

Until 2004, the Chargers had a sweetheart deal with the city guaranteeing the team revenue equivalent to an attendance of 60,000 fans, a policy that cost the city more than $36 million for empty seats.

Last year, the team proposed building a $450 million stadium as part of a commercial development on the Qualcomm site but dropped the plan because it could not find developers to share the estimated $800 million upfront costs. The team offered to pay for the stadium and traffic improvements but wanted the city to give it 60 acres for development to recoup its costs.

Sanders signaled that if the team cannot find another site in San Diego County he would be willing to return to the negotiating table later in the year, perhaps to help find partners for a new stadium in the city.

San Diego County supervisor Ron Roberts said he would back efforts to keep the team in the county.

The NFL has expressed a desire to field a team in the Los Angeles area, raising the possibility that the Chargers could return to their original home. Anaheim, in Orange County, has also been mentioned as a plausible bidder.

Earlier this year, the mayor of San Antonio signaled that his city would welcome the Chargers to fill the Alamodome, where the displaced New Orleans Saints played three games last season.

"I don't know how many cities are going to be willing to put up $400 or $500 million," Sanders said. "But I take every city as a credible threat."