It’s well known that San Diego is wrestling with two major plans for downtown, both of which would require significant public investment: a convention center expansion contiguous to the current site or a combined stadium and convention center annex near Petco Park.
However, some people think other projects would be more worthy of taxpayers’ money.
“We can point to many examples of urban public-private deals that have driven broad prosperity,” said David Malmuth, one of two principal partners in the I.D.E.A. District, a major development planned for East Village. “None of them involve stadiums.”
Malmuth is concerned that a stadium would derail the progress being made in the East Village when it comes to revitalization. He is upset that other ideas aren’t being vetted. He doesn’t oppose a convention center expansion, but he thinks it’s “off the table” for now. A lawsuit killed funding, and a developer is proposing to build hotels where much of the expansion had been planned.
Regardless, either option should be carefully studied to judge its worthiness, Malmuth said.
Most economists are in agreement that neither a stadium nor an expanded convention center is the best use for public funds in downtown.
Kelly Cunningham, senior fellow and economist for the National University System Institute for Policy Research, said both would spur the local economy, but not to the degree that other uses of the funds might.
“Any time a lot of money is spent on redevelopment, there is some economic impact and improvement, whether or not it eventually proves worth the investment,” he said. “One criterion should be whether it becomes self-sustaining and shows long-lasting improvement.”
Both a stadium and a convention center expansion would provide primarily low-paying jobs, since tourism-related jobs don’t pay all that much.
Yes, NFL player salaries are quite lucrative, but those jobs are kind of hard to land. Plus those jobs wouldn’t be created by a new stadium, since the team is already here. If you work at a concession stand, which is the kind of job stadiums mainly provide, chances are you’re only going to earn minimum wage.
Norm Miller, the Hahn Chair of Real Estate Finance in the Burnham-Moores Center for Real Estate at University of San Diego, doesn’t think investing in tourism-related projects, such as a convention center expansion, is the best use of public money.
“Basically, the best investments with the greatest return on investment for cities (jobs, taxes, school support, quality of life) are those investments which serve well their local residents, not tourists,” he said in an email.
Higher returns come when a city creates zones that welcome businesses, he said. He cited San Francisco, Seattle and Boston as examples. Each has university support and incubators to grow business.
“These are models we could follow if we wish,” he said. “Or we could try and accommodate Comic-Com, and (create) some tourists jobs that pay very little and add to the housing affordability crisis.”
Lynn Reaser, chief economist at Point Loma Nazarene University, said that while there is demand for a convention center expansion, there is also demand for housing, office space and retail units.
“Taxpayer and bond funds may be more needed at this time for repair and improvements of our basic infrastructure (water systems, roads, etc.),” she wrote in an email response to questions.
Cunningham listed a number of what he considers to be better uses of public money, including targeting it for infrastructure repairs and upgrades, and improving transportation into and out of downtown.
Still another good investment would be housing for the homeless, Cunningham said.
It would help get people off the streets and improve the desirability of downtown business and living, he said.
However, the best option would be to invest in higher education downtown, he said. That stimulates higher-wage jobs and spurs innovation, entrepreneurship, new businesses and jobs, Cunningham said.
And it’s exactly what developers such as Malmuth and many East Village residents desire.
A grass-roots organization, the East Village People, organized recently to promote what it feels is the best direction for the community.
“There was a broad consensus that nurturing our nascent innovation ecology with a university anchor and additional tech companies was the smartest direction for downtown,” Malmuth said.
San Diego is the only city among the nation’s 35 largest that doesn’t have a downtown university, he noted.
Experts point to Phoenix as an example of how higher education can be an economic boon. Voters approved a $223 million bond to pay for a campus downtown, and that opened the door for Arizona State University, which is based in nearby Tempe, to move some of its professional colleges to downtown Phoenix.
Today, as many as 11,000 students attend the downtown campus. The surrounding neighborhood has changed from a desolate area with abandoned storefronts and empty parking lots to a bustling urban center. New restaurants and shops have popped up, and it has a growing night life.
“Our opinion is that (San Diego) should entice one of our already existing suburban universities — or perhaps several — to come downtown,” Malmuth said.
The Chargers say a stadium development will energize downtown. Fred Maas, the point man for the Chargers, writing recently in the San Diego Union-Tribune, painted this picture: “This facility will allow San Diego to host conventions of all shapes and sizes, along with major events including the Super Bowl, the NCAA Final Four, boxing and MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) matches, soccer and large religious and political gatherings.”
However, others disagree. Stadiums take up a huge amount of space and wall off surrounding neighborhoods, critics such as Malmuth say. Additionally, they aren’t used that often. The Chargers play eight regular-season home games. Many doubt Maas’ contention that the facility will get that much use.
Malmuth’s biggest concern is how the stadium concept is being promoted without much scrutiny regarding its impact. For instance, no one from the city has reached out to him or other East Village stakeholders, he said.
“Someone should be deputized to do an analysis on it,” he said. “This decision has 50-year implications. If we’re wrong, we’re going to look dumb.”
Miller has one outside-the-box idea that would combine the competition a stadium brings with innovation.
“Maybe we should build an arena for international drone and robot competitions, with huge prizes from firms like Northrop Grumman, and encourage competitors to set up development shops nearby,” he said.
He was jesting, but only to a degree.
“My point is that we may need to do something innovative to get started,” he said. “But we have the right ingredients in the region, if we can think bigger and focus on professional jobs.”