San Diego voters should brace themselves for a high-dollar contest this November when they’ll be asked to decide between two competing stadium measures to transform prime city-owned real estate in Mission Valley.
It’s six months before that election, and three campaign committees have already raised more than $7.4 million to spend on the ballot measures.
The SoccerCity proposal calls for the city to lease the 166-acre SDCCU Stadium site and the 50-acre Chargers Park facility on Murphy Canyon Road to FS Investors to build a soccer stadium, a river park, housing and retail space. The plan would also set aside up to 30 acres for San Diego State University. Eventually, the development firm could buy 79.9 acres of that leased land.
The SDSU West proposal lets the city sell 132 acres of the stadium land to SDSU. The school would use the land to build a smaller football stadium, as well as housing for students, faculty and the public, and some retail space. The school would also develop a river park on the remaining 34 acres.
If voters approve both measures, the one with the most votes would win.
Carl Luna, a political science professor at San Diego Mesa College, said he expects the campaign to turn into an expensive and nasty one.
“What you’re going to see is a blitz coming in after Labor Day, and it’s going to be a fairly negative campaign,” Luna said. “I don’t think either has a major way to say that they’re better than the other, so they’re gonna try to make the other one look worse.”
The stadium has a cherished history in San Diego, having been home to the Chargers from 1967 until the team moved to Los Angeles last year. The Padres also played there from 1969 until moving into taxpayer-supported Petco Park in 2004. The stadium has hosted three Super Bowls and two World Series. The San Diego State University football team also has played there since 1967.
Luna called it “the last great piece of available property like that in all of Mission Valley.” He said voters might not be willing to commit to either proposal in November.
The money behind SoccerCity
The campaign committee GOAL: San Diegans for the River Park School Funding Soccer and a Tax-Free Stadium was set up early last year to boost the SoccerCity proposal and oppose SDSU West. It had raised more than $3.7 million through March 31.
Six developers and investors provided almost all of the money. La Jolla-based FS Investors founder Michael Stone has given about $1.3 million. Nick Stone, a partner in the firm and no relation to Michael Stone, has given about $66,400.
Through March, GOAL had spent almost $4.1 million, including outstanding debts. About $1 million went to circulating a petition to get SoccerCity on the ballot. The committee has also started campaigning, spending nearly $830,000 on TV ads and about $42,000 on literature and mailers.
Nick Stone said a well-funded opposition campaign is to be expected in San Diego.
“I’m not surprised, in total, that a bunch of real estate interests have lined up to try and get their hands on the land instead of us,” he said.
Stone declined to say how much money FS Investors is planning to spend on the campaign, but he said the developers are not shrinking from the fight.
“We’re incredibly confident we’re going to win this, and that’s because, on the merits, that we know we’re a better plan,” Stone said. “We’re willing to kind of invest accordingly behind this proposal.”
The money behind SDSU West and No on SoccerCity
Two campaign committees have lined up opposite SoccerCity: Friends of SDSU, to boost the SDSU West proposal, and the self-explanatory No on SoccerCity, which is officially named Public Land, Public Benefit.
Through March, Friends of SDSU had raised more than $1.6 million. More than half a million dollars came from five SDSU alumni who each contributed $105,000.
Those top donors are Jack McGrory, San Diego’s former city manager and a California State University System trustee; L. Robert Payne, a real estate investor; Leon W. Parma, a businessman who has been involved in real estate and storage companies; Jack Goodall, former Jack in the Box chairman; and Christopher Sickels, a real estate developer.
Most of the remaining money came from 22 individuals and organizations that donated $10,000 or more.
Among those with real estate interests are H.G. Fenton Co. and Sudberry Properties Chairman Thomas Sudberry. Each contributed $99,000. Thomas and Colton Sudberry, CEO of Sudberry Properties, are also both on the Friends of SDSU steering committee.
Friends of SDSU had spent almost $1.8 million through March, including unpaid debts. Of that, more than $1.2 million went to circulating a petition to get the SDSU West measure on the ballot. The committee has not sent any mass mailers, a committee official said.
Through March, No on SoccerCity had raised almost $2.1 million, all from six donors. H.G. Fenton and Sudberry Properties each gave about $1 million. The other donors are real estate investment firm Alta Co. and three Sudberry executives, including Colton and Thomas Sudberry.
No on SoccerCity had spent almost $2.2 million through March, including unpaid debts. The biggest expenditure, more than $1 million, went for political consultants.
Tom Shepard, a campaign consultant for both committees, said he can’t compete with the amount of money he expects SoccerCity supporters will spend.
“There are a lot of people who are very supportive of San Diego State and have made generous contributions,” Shepard said. “But they’re just that. They’re contributions. They don’t have any financial stake in it.”
But at least three of the large donors to the campaigns Shepard is behind do have substantial financial interests in Mission Valley.
Sudberry Properties, along with Alta Co., is developing Civita, a master-planned community in Mission Valley. The project covers about 230 acres and will eventually have approximately 4,780 homes, plus space for retail, offices and parks.
Colton Sudberry said this is the first time the company has been involved in opposing a development project and said its concerns are about SoccerCity’s impact on traffic.
“We have homes and residents and businesses in the valley,” he said. “We’re protecting them, protecting ourselves.”
Sudberry declined to say how much money his company is willing to spend opposing the SoccerCity measure.
H.G. Fenton and its related LLCs own 23 parcels throughout the 92108 ZIP code, according to county parcel records and a company spokeswoman.
That ZIP code includes the stadium and stretches from western Mission Valley to Grantville, just east of Interstate 15. H.G. Fenton’s parcels include four apartment buildings that have a combined 1,247 homes.
H.G. Fenton declined an interview request for this story.
Money doesn’t always guarantee success
Political scientist Luna said all of the campaign spending on the two stadium measures could overwhelm voters, especially when the Nov. 6 ballot will likely feature at least one more major local measure.
“The thing that could happen is, if it gets negative enough, and with enough money going out to burned-out voters, they both end up failing,” he said.
In 2016, the Chargers spent more than $7.6 million trying to persuade voters to support a combination stadium and convention center in downtown San Diego.
That proposal lost with less than 44 percent of the vote.