By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
When you think Carson, you think car dealer Don Kott long before you think wheeler-dealer Michael Ovitz. Carson is a residential city that socially and geographically bridges the distance between Compton and Torrance. It's got Nissan Motors' U.S. headquarters, a Cal State campus, Kott's sprawling auto dealerships and an IKEA-anchored mall, plus some of the scraggly bare spots that, in metro L.A., usually connote abandoned dumpsites.
One of these latter venues got Carson in the news last week, with the airing of a landfill-based proposal that would turn this burg of 90,000 into an NFL city, complete with a half-billion-dollar stadium-cum-mall.
It was a big day for Carsonites. There, on the front of the morning Times, was a tinted sketch of what appeared to be a luminous, 77,000-seat Taco Bell.
The eulogistic article (which determined that this project was, instantly, "the leading contender" for the NFL's proposed 32nd team) struck some townsfolk with much the same impact as those "you're a $100 million winner" mailings hit the gullible.
That night, about 300 Carsonites overflowed the 140-capacity council chamber to find out what this bid meant to them, and what the city's contribution (ranging from $100 million to $180 million) would mean to a municipality with an annual operating budget of under $40 million.
The so-called Hacienda Stadium package is a fast-track proposition if ever there was one. Discussion of an NFL stadium in Carson, which competes directly with a proposal to place a team in the Los Angeles Coliseum, had only begun this year. But by last Tuesday, there were artists' drawings, the open involvement of Ovitz and partners including basketball star Shaquille O'Neal and actor Kevin Costner - plus a necessary demand for an official commitment from the National Football League by the time of this week's league meeting in Kansas City.
It all happened so fast that some skepticism on the part of Carsonites was to be expected. They knew the L.A. Coliseum proposal, backed by that city and developer Ed Roski, was ready to go to the NFL. But how had Carson gotten into the game? And in the council chambers, city officials boosting the project did little at first to a reassure the citizenry: Their answers were vague going on hostile. Had the proposal been voted on then, it might have failed.
But proponents were better prepared when the council met again two days later. Actual numbers seeped out while the two key council members in favor of the project - both in a more accommodating mood - made the case that Carson's risk was minimal.
The $1.5 billion proposal was laid out by a consultant, John Stainbeck, key council-member supporter Daryl Sweeney and Mayor Peter Fajardo. They portrayed a project with no downside. Ovitz and Partners, they explained, would try to lock up the NFL franchise - Cleveland recently paid $530 million for its new NFL team. The up-to-$180-million city contribution goes toward both the stadium and an adjacent (and long-planned) 1.2-million-square-foot shopping mall, which would include a football museum. In case the sports-stadium-and-shopping-mall concept slowed you down, we'll get back to it in a moment.
The Carson number crunchers' most important claim was that their agreement absolves the city from paying that bonded debt out of the city's regular budget. Moreover, they claimed that Carson will net around $14 million a year, almost risk-free. This is over and above some $11 million in annual debt service that's also supposed to be produced by revenues from the facility. (Right now, the city's bond rating is, according to Moody's, a middling "BAA1." It's too early for Wall Street to weigh in on the proposed stadium bonds.)
Sweeney said Carson's resolute proposal is tough enough to compete with those already on the table from the Coliseum promoters and the city of Houston. After three hours of discussion, the council backed the proposal with four votes and one abstention. That sealed the deal for the city to make its proposal.
Thus first-term officeholder Sweeney obtained in two days from little Carson what veteran Los Angeles Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas has been unable to get from Los Angeles after years of trying: a council majority behind a plan for a pro-football franchise.
But the deal's real fomenter was nowhere near Carson City Hall last week. Enigmatic magnate Michael Ovitz was represented at the crucial second meeting only by a young Munger Tolles attorney, whose sole contribution was a suggestion (rejected) that the city not cap its participation offer at $180 million.
Ovitz's influence came before - when he met with the little city's officers and overwhelmed them. If onetime client megastars such as Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand have melted before Ovitz's luminosity, what chance did Sweeney and Fajardo have? Ovitz also had a recent, persuasive schmooze at his own Brentwood palazzo with the NFL brass hats, league commissioner Paul Tagliabue and stadium-committee chairman Jerry Richardson.
Ovitz certainly had found an available site, a quarter-square-mile swath that has been desolate for nearly 40 years. But there's good reason for that. The accursed acreage squats atop 1.2 million gallons of toxic liquids. Previous development attempts include fizzled proposals for Rams and Raider stadiums, while a suspect residential plan (involving Orange County fixer and fireworks kingpin W. Patrick Moriarity) got two entrepreneurs indicted and bankrupted an Irvine S&L. Owned by a union pension fund, the site was most recently to be turned into something called MetroMall by a developer named Herbert Glimcher.