Stakeholders Debate Convention Center's Future

If city project funding comes to a pubic vote, one consultant says leaders should look to a Petco Park model

As the city of San Diego scrambles to find a way to fund a convention center expansion, going back to the drawing board could get the city closer to a new football stadium.

The funding mechanism for the $520 million project, which proposed building more space off the exsiting center into the bayfront, was ruled unconstitutional by an appellate court on Aug.1.

Two years ago, hotel owners voted to self-assess a fee of 1 to 3 percent on rooms to be paid by guests, but the Court of Appeals decided a surcharge like that would need to go to a citywide vote, leaving the mayor and city council with no other choice but to come up with Plan B.

Among new options to keep the scheme alive is a proposal by JMI Realty to build a detached expansion for the convention center, connected to a new Charger stadium downtown, U-T San Diego reported Sunday. The separate facility would be located east of Petco Park but within walking distance of the existing center. The realty company also submitted three other variations for the city to consider.

But whether they decide to construct the projects in tandem or separately, city leaders will have to first sell the public benefits to residents, said political consultant Tom Shepard.

"So now, I think we all understand there's going to have to be a public vote -- either one vote on both projects or a separate public vote on each of them, and that changes the dynamics of the situation,” Shepard told NBC 7.

He had to undergo a similar public approval process as he worked to get funding for a new baseball park in 1998 and a previous convention center expansion. Shepard said Padres management did a great deal of public opinion research to divine what residents would be willing to spend their tax dollars on.

They discovered the public did not want to commit funds to a sports facility, but they would back projects that had clear public benefit. If funding the Chargers stadium goes to a vote, Shepard said the administrators will need to clearly show what those benefits could be to the taxpayer.

When selecting an area for Petco Park, Padres owners preferred other locations, but the East Village was chosen because it had the potential for the most direct public benefit. The huge construction project led to $2 billion in private investments to revitalize the area, Shepard said.

JMI Realty, which helped build Petco Park, believes a proposed stadium-convention center combination would cost $1.4 billion and would require some use of public funds.

Former mayor and Chamber of Commerce President Jerry Sanders would prefer sticking with the city's original plan of a larger, adjoining convention center along the waterfront -- with no stadium included.

"A contiguous convention center is the number one choice for the hoteliers and the convention bureaucracy, but if that doesn't work, I think the other plan could work," Sanders told NBC 7.

But a second legal batte is brewing over the site's environmental impact and threatens to bury that plan for good. A lawsuit alleges the California Coastal Commission illegally approved the expansion of a convention center that should never have been built on the waterfront in the first place, said attorney Cory Briggs, who represents taxpayers in the financial and environmental cases. 

He told NBC 7 he and his clients asked JMI to draft up the alternative plans to open the issue up for public debate.

"This information is out there to rebut the lies that the city's politicians and the hoteliers and the expansion center supports have been spewing," said Briggs, accusing leaders of pushing the contiguous expansion as the only viable plan.

The case against the Coastal Commission is still pending and could take two years to make its way through the court.

JMI Realty Senior Advisor Steve Peace told NBC 7 all four proposed plans are good, but to do nothing would be the worst plan.

Contact Us