Sports Arena Mends Fences--Along With the Roof

It was about a year ago that El Cajon businessman Vince Ciruzzi took over the San Diego Sports Arena with a promise to get the house in order.

The departure of Ciruzzi's predecessor, Canadian investor Peter Graham, had been welcomed by city officials. By the end of Graham's 14-year tenure as president of family-owned San Diego Entertainment Inc., the arena's operator, both the building and relations with the city had deteriorated.

When the Clippers, San Diego's National Basketball Assn. franchise, left town for Los Angeles in 1984, city officials began pressuring Graham to repair the 20-year-old arena's leaky roof and replace its uncomfortable seats. In a subsequent lawsuit, a San Diego County Superior Court jury found that the 13,000-seat arena was "not reasonably fit for professional basketball" and ordered Graham to pay the Clippers $500,000 in damages.

Graham finally agreed to embark on a $1-million renovation program in January, 1985, after then-City Manager Ray Blair threatened to revoke the arena's lease. A few months later, Phillip Graham, president of Graymont Ltd., San Diego Entertainment's parent company, relieved his brother of his duties and hired Ciruzzi to make amends with arena tenants and city officials.

"We've tried very hard to mend our fences," Ciruzzi said. "We've tried to let people know we are concerned, we are responsive and that we are a first-class facility."

The verdict after one year is that Ciruzzi has been successful.

"I think there's been a tremendous positive change," said Bob Bell, majority owner of the San Diego Sockers, who play 30 games a year in the arena. "In the year that Vin has been here, I've seen a tremendous change as far as positive relationships with the tenants and with the entities that work with the arena. . . . The whole approach is that we're partners instead of tenants and landlords."

Such glowing sentiments are echoed by promoter Mike Fahn, whose firm, Fahn and Silva Presents, stages an average of 15 rock concerts a year at the arena.

"He seems to have made a definite turnaround at the Sports Arena," Fahn said, "from improving the security, to being the instigator of a change in attitude, to the fact that they've spent a lot of money revamping the floor and the seats. It's a lot cleaner and more comfortable for the viewing public."

Although most of the major renovations were under way when Ciruzzi took over as arena president, he has augmented them by repainting the entire building, landscaping the grounds and revamping the arena's restaurant and cocktail lounge. His next goal is to install a new public address system and improve the building's cavernous acoustics.

Despite the praise, there has been a disturbing emptiness at the arena. Although entertainers ranging from Luciano Pavarotti to Bob Dylan have been booked, the combined revenue of concerts and indoor soccer has barely defrayed the costs of renovations.

"We've covered expenses," said Ciruzzi, declining to be more specific. "Over the last year, there's been over $2 million in improvements made to this building. We've never missed a payment."

What the arena needs to be profitable is the 40 additional event dates that an NBA franchise would provide. But beyond changing the arena's appearance, Ciruzzi also must change the stigma San Diego has as a result of the failures of three professional basketball franchises.

"We've worked very hard to change the attitude of the NBA," Ciruzzi said. "It's natural to have a team here. Everybody in the league misses coming here. . . . What everyone has been saying is: 'Does the city of San Diego really want an NBA team?' "

"Everybody is interested in getting an NBA franchise here, but that's no easy task," said Clair Burgener, an ex-congressman who is on an arena advisory group. "First, you need to find an owner, somebody with $20 million or so to spend. Then you need to find enough people to make season ticket orders."

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