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Column: Snapdragon Stadium a stunner, in spite of cloud hanging over Aztecs opener

San Diego Union Tribune logo San Diego Union Tribune 9/2/2022 Bryce Miller
San Diego State plays its football opener against Arizona on Saturday at new Snapdragon Stadium. (Kirk Kenney/The San Diego Union-Tribune) © (Kirk Kenney / San Diego Union-Tribune) San Diego State plays its football opener against Arizona on Saturday at new Snapdragon Stadium. (Kirk Kenney/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Snapdragon Stadium constitutes a shimmering San Diego miracle. It’s a start-to-finish sports marvel in a city where project timelines and budgets go to die. Pick your stadium or arena and wait for the fireworks.

Petco Park became paralyzed by lawsuits that halted construction for two years. The city botched initial efforts to replace the aging Sports Arena because it fumbled housing regulations, forcing a wince-worthy do over.

Not this time. San Diego State pulled off what so many in the community felt had become impossible, delivering a sports gem on time and, Director of Athletics J.D. Wicker says, on budget.

When Saturday’s football season opener against Arizona tees it up at 12:30 p.m. on CBS, though, the stadium uncomfortably will share the stage with questions about how the university handled gang-rape allegations involving football players at an off-campus party in October.

Three former Aztec football players, including All-America punter and NFL draft pick Matt Araiza, have been linked to the criminal invesitgation through a civil lawsuit. San Diego Police have handed over the case to the district attorney.

As temperatures creep into the 90s for kickoff, it will be the only cloud over Snapdragon Stadium.

Despite the massive off-field story still roiling, the university deserves credit for a facility that will have an impact on San Diego for at least a generation. It also signals that a city labeled as non-finishers in sports — still waiting on a major professional championship — flashed the grit and gumption to get something special done.

Significant off-field concerns notwithstanding, the stadium sausage-making was worthy of a Broadway bow.

“I don’t know how many people I’ve had say, ‘I can’t believe you did it. I’ve been working on a kitchen remodel for two years. I can’t even get a refrigerator and you put a stadium up in two years,’ ” Wicker said recently.

San Diego State’s $310 million success story owes itself to facing off against a rival plan, conquering the ballot box, piling due diligence on due diligence and displaying nimble and savvy financial footwork.

The communication plan amounted to a bull rush.

Unlike other projects tripped up by the unknown or the unexpected, the university listened, listened and listened some more before a shovel ever pierced soil on the 166-acre location in Mission Valley.

“We talked to everybody under the sun, engaged every possible environmental group, the Mission Valley Planning (Group), the taxpayer’s association, every real estate group you can think of,” Wicker said. “We took all those ideas and incorporated ones that made sense into the project.”

San Diego State also brought plans into early meetings with the NFL and Major League Soccer, so as not to limit possibilities in the future. They factored in being realistic about capacity size — the stadium currently is at 35,000, including standing-room-only access for 2,000 — and the financial implications of it all.

Planners wisely considered tomorrow as much as present day.

“What we heard from the community, if the NFL wants to come back, we need to be able to accommodate them,” Wicker said. “The site is big enough to expand to 55,000. The NFL told us, ‘55’ was a good number for San Diego.

“If you build to ‘70’ to get a Super Bowl, you’re only going to get that once every 10 years. If you’re not getting any (return on investment) on all those seats, why do it?”

As for MLS, conversations are continuing. Wicker said the hope is to lure a team to Snapdragon as early as 2025.

“We asked those groups for feedback, then tried to put as much of that calculus into building a stadium that works now and into the future,” he said.

Go back, though, to when we all began to understand how broadly Wicker and those on campus thought about what a stadium could be — and just as importantly, what it could mean.

Wicker, a former deputy athletic director at SDSU, returned to become take over the department in 2016 after working at Georgia Tech. In Georgia, Wicker picked up ideas about so-called innovation districts to grow a university academically.

The Aztecs also are navigating conversations with the Pac-12 and Big 12 about the potential to join one conference. A key resume enhancer is becoming a “Research 1” university, a profile-raising distinction that makes selling a new conference member to presidents more palatable.

“There’s a Steve Fisher basketball show from the spring of 2017 where we did a whole segment on ‘technology square’ and what that would look like in Mission Valley,” Wicker said.

That was before the Aztecs had rights to the land. In fact, they began as underdogs to a plan called SoccerCity that initially had the support of then-mayor Kevin Faulconer, MLS Commissioner Don Garber and more.

That illustrated the length of the takeoff ramp used by San Diego State.

The Research 1 component — conducting a very high level of research, through doctoral degrees — would add to San Diego State’s ability to use the stadium project as a broader launching pad.

“If we can do that (with innovation districts), along with a stadium, it could be hugely beneficial for the institution and the community,” Wicker said. “We need the academic institution to continue getting better as we think about conference realignment.”

Considering every possible detail became a shrewd, winning approach.

A prime example was the steel needed to give Snapdragon its bones. Some of it was made in Mexico, while the rest came from Thailand. Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, delivery of the steel from Asia was impacted. Pandemic-related backups at the Port of Long Beach caused SDSU to shift to Oakland.

“We worked really hard to know when ships were coming with steel and divert it if we needed to,” Wicker said. “We ended up starting two weeks late, but (Clark Construction) put on an extra crew and we ended up finishing steel early.”

One of the biggest financial windfalls came because of fateful timing related to bonds for the project.

Wicker said the initial pro forma presented to the California State University system projected bond rates at 5.4 percent interest. By the time the those were sold, the interest rate plummeted to below 3 percent. That created roughly a $2.5 million annual savings before a single light bulb was screwed in.

“We got the bonds at the bottom of the market,” Wicker said.

At each turn, San Diego State continued making solid decisions. More decisions remain.

“Now, you’ve got to dial in the stadium,” Wicker said. “Just because you open it, doesn’t mean it’s perfect.”

The backdrop for Snapdragon’s football opener hardly qualifies as perfect, either. That in no way means it has not been a San Diego stunner, a headline-grabbing project reaching a refreshing finish line.

For a few hours, the clouds can wait.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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