By Scott Peters
December 20, 2009

San Diegans know from Petco Park that investing in a sports facility can pay off. The ballpark attracted $2 billion in private investment, generating millions more each year in new tax revenues than we need to pay off the debt the city incurred. And it transformed an underused area into an East Village that’s terrific, even when the baseball team’s not.

Replacing our downtown bus yard with a football stadium would help area restaurants, hotels and stores. San Diego will immediately become the preferred site for Super Bowls and other lucrative events like soccer’s World Cup. That means more jobs and more revenue from sales, property and tourism taxes.

But a downtown stadium mostly helps Mission Valley. Today, the 166 acres around Qualcomm Stadium are captive to occasional football games, car sales events, motorcycle races and tractor pulls. If we move the stadium, we can turn half of that land into parks, including walking and biking paths along the San Diego River, and enough playing fields to eliminate Mission Valley’s unfortunate and serious park shortage. The other half of the property could be developed with a reasonable mix of office, retail and residential uses. That’s a far better use of public land than a massive parking lot, and would bring an economic return to a city that could use it.

What would it take to move the stadium? We could start with the money we spend on the old one. The city spends $13 million annually on stadium maintenance, a number that will certainly increase in time. Investing that amount for 30 years (roughly the useful life of a new stadium) is worth a payment today of about $175 million. We also owe about $50 million in deferred maintenance. If we put that into a new stadium instead of our old one, that’s $225 million our city could invest in a new stadium without spending a dime more than we would pay out if the Chargers stayed right where they are. Any major project raises questions and challenges, especially in today’s economy, and the devil is in the details. But maintaining the status quo may be more expensive for taxpayers than contributing to a new stadium, because today’s stadium maintenance costs will only rise, and we now get almost no financial return from our Mission Valley property.

Is contributing our existing stadium expense enough to make this happen? At least it’s a start. Downtown already has parking spaces and freeway ramps that other potential sites don’t have. Not having to build that infrastructure saves about $200 million off the cost of the project. The Chargers should share the field with SDSU and agree to the same taxpayer protections as the Padres did: cap the public investment, pay or find money for the rest of the construction cost, build it, take the risk of cost overruns, share ownership, pay for maintenance and commit to keeping the team here for the long term.

Will the Chargers profit from this? Of course – that’s what any business expects. But that’s the wrong question for us. San Diegans need to ask if making this investment will help San Diego. If we can find a way to keep the Chargers, replace our aging stadium, increase public parkland and improve the city’s economy and finances, let’s do it.