The Ben & Faris Convadium Con Q&A

Ben didn’t buy the ending to “The People vs. O.J Simpson.” He told Faris: “As soon as Darden made O.J. put on that glove, I knew how it would play out…I knew. I thought there’d be a twist, you know? And Clark should never have moved the case out of Santa Monica.”
 
C’mon Ben, it’s just a TV show, it’s not real. It’s no “Bachelor.” 
 
Now that the dust has settled, what do you think of the Chargers plan?
 
Ben Higgins: When I scored the first sit down interview with Chargers stadium advisor Fred Maas, he gave me a quote that will be repeated hundreds of times over the next few months: 
 
“If you live in San Diego, you won’t pay a dime for the new stadium, unless you stay in a local hotel.”
 
I’ve already heard Maas deliver that line several times, and I believe it will be the centerpiece of the stadium campaign. 
 
It sure is a great place to start.
 
Yes, increased hotel taxes could have a negative effect on the tourism industry, and we still don’t have enough details on what the stadium and convention center project will look like. At some point, though, the Chargers will release glitzy 3D renderings, and a lot of voters will have an epiphany. 
 
“So, we get to have a fancy new stadium downtown to keep the Chargers, and it’s not going to cost me anything at all? I’m cool with that.”
 
For a long time, I’ve admired cities that turned their downtown areas into massive sports and entertainment complexes. Seattle and Denver are two of my favorite places in America to visit, and not for the weather. Why shouldn’t San Diego follow that successful model? 
 
Plus, I’ve never once checked how much city hotel tax I paid during a vacation. It’s too high everywhere; just something to grumble about when they slide the bill under my door and then forget about 15 minutes later.
 
Faris Tanyos: Let the vacationers pay for it. What’s another 4 percent on their room bills? 
 
But if I run a company, and I’m putting together a weekend retreat for, say, 30 employees, I’m booking a hotel in West Palm Beach, with its 6 percent hotel tax. I’m not coming to San Diego and forking out a staggering 16.5 percent. The math is not hard. 
 
Just like Johnnie Cochran with the O.J. jury, there are a couple significant issues with the plan the Chargers hope you overlook. 
 
The first is that the Chargers and the NFL have soft-capped their contribution to $650 million -- $350 million from the team and $300 million from the league. Note that $200 million of the NFL’s portion is in the form of a loan. What kind of loan? 
 
Who knows?
 
So, their share is really down to $450 million. Oh, but we’re not done. 
 
The Chargers “estimate” constructing the stadium, expanding the Convention Center and making all the necessary infrastructure modifications will run $1.8 billion; that’s $1 billion for the stadium and $800 million for the Convention Center. Remember, that includes upgrades to public transportation, and drastic changes to the downtown area, including the possible relocation of businesses and homes
 
$1.8 billion is a very conservative number. 
 
Under the plan, the Chargers will ONLY be on the hook for overruns in the stadium budget, NOT the Convention Center. But what defines the stadium? Is it the structure? Is it the structure and parking lot? Is it the structure, parking lot and surrounding neighborhood? 
 
Who knows?
 
What happens when planners realize the Convention Center expansion will cost much more than $800 million?
 
Who knows? 
 
The Chargers don’t want you to know that their plan is comparable to getting an adjustable-rate mortgage. You know ARMs, those things that sent our economy into a tailspin in 2008?  
 
The second issue is that the Chargers will keep ALL income generated by naming rights and personal seat licenses. 
 
Levi Stadium’s naming rights went for $220 million. Let’s conservatively estimate that the naming rights and PSLs generate a combined $200 million for the Chargers. Now their portion down to $150 million.  
 
To recap, the Chargers and the NFL are really only contributing $300 million to a project that will probably cost in the neighborhood of $2 billion to $2.5 billion. 
 
All that said, a hotel tax hike is the only kind of tax hike that is semi- palatable. That doesn’t make it good. Unless the Bolts are willing to double their contribution or rectify the two issues mentioned above, San Diego is getting fleeced.  No stadium is better than what they are offering. 
 
Can it be approved by two-thirds of voters? Half?
 
Faris: If our political climate is any indication, you can’t get two-thirds of the public to agree on anything. 
 
Contrary to the denouement of Mad Men, our society isn’t living inside a Coke commercial. We couldn’t persuade 66 percent of San Diegans to approve a measure making Pinkberry free on Fridays; and Pinkberry is delicious and completely uncontroversial, unlike this plan, which is mired in confusion. 
 
Assessing whether the convadium would pass a 50 percent threshold is fruitless for several reasons, the most pertinent being that the single court case that would serve as a precedent for this is still making its rounds through the system. It won’t be resolved by November. Maas said the Chargers are operating as if they’ll need the two-thirds approval. C’est la vie. 
 
Here’s the brass tax, pun intended: There’s a better chance Johnny Manziel signs with the Panthers next season, outduels Cam Newton for the starting gig and throws for 6,000 yards on his way to a Super Bowl than San Diego has of approving a convadium with a two-thirds threshold. 
 
So, what are we doing here, folks?
 
The Chargers are paying lip service: “We did our due diligence. We exhausted our options. We failed. We depart to L.A.”
 
To their credit, they did try. The Chargers roped Comic-Con into the plan in an attempt to make it appealing to non-football fans. 
 
San Diego can and will expand its Convention Center without coupling it with a stadium. When push comes to shove, Comic-Con prints money hand over fist for San Diego. The Chargers siphon it like sand in an hour glass. If you’re picking between them, it’s not a hard choice.  
 
Ben: 50 percent + 1 is very doable. In fact, a 10News/Union-Tribune poll shows support for the Chargers plan at about 54 percent, but that’s before either side really starts campaigning.
 
Most experts think a two-thirds vote is close to impossible, and they may be right. Ultimately, it may come down to how the team is performing on the field when November rolls around (not a comforting thought after last season’s 4-12 dumpster fire).
 
It will be quite easy for convadium opponents to pile on Team Spanos if the team is wallowing in last place in the AFC West. Fans already have plenty of reasons to be skeptical of ownership.
 
On the other hand, a winning team with playoff aspirations could make voices of dissent sound like grumpy party poopers.
 
Last week, NFL schedule makers laid it out for the Chargers, and 6-3 looks like the best-case scenario heading into Election Day. The worst-case scenario is, well, a lot worse. A home game against the Tennessee Titans two days before the possible vote can’t be a coincidence, right? They want Bolts fans in a good mood when those ballots get punched.
 
Mayor Faulconer and the city wasted time and money putting together a proposal the Chargers publicly opposed and abjectly ignored. Now Faulconer & Co. are trapped. What’s their move? 
 
Ben: At this point, the Mayor is trading leadership for patience. He’s going to wait and see how the wind is blowing before coming out with a strong opinion either for or against the Chargers proposal. Maybe the team fails to get enough signatures. Maybe the courts intervene. Maybe the Chargers are 9-0 on Election Day and San Diego is football crazy (hey, it could happen). 
 
Faulconer doesn’t want to be known as the mayor who lost his city’s NFL team. That wouldn’t be good in a future gubernatorial campaign. (On a side note, don’t you just love the word “gubernatorial?” Getting to say GOOBER in a snooty way is always fun.) But Faulconer also can’t just roll over and support the wishes of a billionaire football owner -- some of the 99 percent might not look so kindly on that.
 
He’s in a tough spot. That’s why I’m expecting very little from Mr. Mayor.
 
Faris: If we’ve learned anything from this saga, it’s that the NFL is more powerful than any municipality.   
 
San Diego’s politicians spent two decades squabbling with the Chargers over a stadium. A simple ultimatum brought them scrambling to their knees. Instead of using that push to see and raise the Chargers, they burned six months on a plan that Spanos promptly lit on fire. 
 
The policymakers have been relegated to spectators. They have no say. 
 
This process is a microcosm of the inefficiencies of a bloated political system. 
 
The Chargers circumvented Faulconer and his cronies. They enforced their will. Maybe we should task them with fixing the city’s roads and revamping the police department? They might actually get something done.  
 
There are so many concerned parties with a stake in this: hotel owners, MTS, the Padres, Comic-Con, downtown businesses, taxpayers. There’s no solution that works for everyone. If this is approved, who is left out in the rain? 
 
Faris: Who’s on the hook in 40 years when the stadium mortgage STILL isn’t paid off? The Royal We, friends. We will be left standing in the rain, helping Holly Golightly find her missing cat.  
 
If the Chargers move downtown, MTS gets to upgrade its trolley system and move its East Village bus yard without spending a dime or lifting a finger. Downtown businesses will also come out ahead. Well, at least the ones that aren’t forced out. The effect on the Padres will be negligible. 
 
On its face, a Convention Center expansion seems like a no-brainer for Comic-Con. Check it, though, what kind of expansion are we talking about?
 
The Bolts’ initiative calls for a noncontiguous expansion. That means the convention center would be split into two campuses. 
 
Have you seen a Comic-Con program itinerary, Ben? It’s longer than War and Peace. There are hundreds of panels and workshops that have to be timed out perfectly over four days. Splitting the Convention Center in half will turn that already behemoth scheduling chore into a full blown nightmare. 
 
It will create serious transportation issues for organizers, exhibitors and retailers, not to mention attendees trying to navigate the endless maze of events. Remember in college, when you had only 10 minutes to get between classes that were on opposite ends of campus? Imagine 130,000 people doing just that, all at once.  
 
No, for this convadium to work, the expansion has to be contiguous. Comic-Con has a greater financial and cultural influence on San Diego than the Chargers. Its needs come first. 
 
Ben, you love the word gubernatorial. I love hoteliers. It’s so deliciously evil. I love that, in 2008, the hoteliers’ Spectre-like organization, the San Diego Tourism Marketing District, created a 2 percent tax out of thin air without getting approval from voters. I love that the SDTMD owns Faulconer to the point that he had to publicly peddle an inferior Mission Valley stadium because the hoteliers don’t want the Chargers to move downtown. 
 
I’ll let you explain why the hoteliers are in such a tizzy over the Chargers’ plan, Ben. 
 
Ben: Someone with inside industry knowledge told me that the cabal of hoteliers (you’re kicking yourself for not using the word “cabal,” aren’t you Faris?) don’t really want a Convention Center expansion at all. 
 
Sounds crazy, right? Don’t hotels like customers visiting San Diego and paying $250/night to use their establishment? Wouldn’t a bigger Convention Center bring more of those customers to town?
 
Yes, but hold on a second. What currently happens when Comic-Con comes to town and all those panels and workshops can’t fit within the confines of our current Convention Center? Now you see it. THEY ALL HAVE TO RENT HOTEL MEETING ROOMS AND BALLROOMS AT SKY-HIGH PRICES! That’s where the big money can be made in the hotel game.
 
That’s why the hoteliers are pushing a smaller, contiguous expansion that keeps everyone in the neighborhood and still using their buildings for happy hours and pre-parties and after-parties.
 
Build a non-contiguous expansion, and all that business will go to the new hotels and restaurants that pop up a few blocks away. Which, come to think of it, will mean a better downtown for San Diego and more tax revenue for the city.
 
So this plan might actually have some merit after all.
 
Finally, the Chargers should be bending over backwards to get Comic-Con to come over to their side. 
 
Can we build you a permanent Comic-Con museum on site? Cosplay night with Philip Rivers? Would you like us to re-name the team the Lightsaber Chargers? (How do those things stay charged, anyway? Luke never has to plug his into the wall. I bet Big Lightsaber changes the adaptor cord with every new model.)
 
The Chargers have yet to release design plans for the convadium. Should the final play include a soft roof option that would allow the stadium to host indoor events like the Final Four?
 
Ben: YES!! I get it…We’re San Diego and we don’t need a roof. But being able to draw events like the Final Four will take this city to the next level as a national and international destination. 
 
How about a presidential political convention or an NBA All-Star game? And I’m sure Comic-Con could find an excellent way to use that indoor space, even if they still are in favor of a contiguous expansion.
 
Plus, the benefits are larger than you might think. These events have all become more like Super Bowls in recent years. They’re not just one-day affairs, but rather, week-long extravaganzas that bring tens of thousands of tourists to town. Some don’t even bother going to the event -- they just come for the party atmosphere. 
 
Are we just going to continue to watch these giant events go to Indianapolis, Houston and Phoenix every year? Don’t get me wrong, they’re all very nice* cities. But none of them are in the same league as San Diego.
 
*Trying really hard to be polite. 
 
Faris: Why not? It can’t hurt. It would be like buying a brand new car but passing on the Bluetooth and satellite radio. You’re already spending upwards of $20K, might as well throw in the extra $500. 
 
However, I’m not sure what type of Comic-Con event could fill 65,000 seats. And stadiums aren’t that attractive to All-Star games or political conventions. The Republicans and Democrats are holding their conventions this year in arenas. The NBA All Star game is always in an arena. 
 
The weakest aspect of the Final Four is that it is played in a stadium. The atmosphere lacks intimacy. The teams have a tough time adapting to the environment of a raised court before a distant crowd. It’s not fan-friendly. 
 
Stadiums are only useful for two things: mega concerts and football games. Only a handful of stadium artists come through San Diego in a given year. There’s your Taylor Swifts, Paul McCartneys, Rolling Stones…that’s it. And those artists may opt to use Petco Park anyway, which lends itself to a better experience.  
 
With a new stadium, San Diego will be in line for a Super Bowl every eight years or so. And Super Bowls usually leave host cities in the red, not the black. This year, San Francisco taxpayers shelled out an estimated $4.8 million for a Super Bowl their city WASN’T EVEN HOSTING! 
 
Super Bowl 48 left New Jersey with an estimated $17.7 million bill. Glendale lost up to $1.25 million on Super Bowl 49
 
"We brought in less money than we spent, just bottom line," Glendale Mayor Jerry Weiers said. 
 
But yes, let’s add that roof. 
 
-- Follow Ben Higgins on Twitter @BenHigginsSD
-- Follow Faris Tanyos on Twitter @OnlyFairchild 
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