Pickler Ponders: Should Anaheim Cut Losses on Arena?

In one of his movies, Woody Allen's character is reproached by a friend for being an atheist. "No," Allen says. "To you, I'm an atheist. To God, I'm the loyal opposition."

In a society where rassling and roller derby can draw crowds, trying to stop the sports bandwagon is tantamount to heresy.

City Councilman Irv Pickler is that kind of a heretic, the lone Anaheim councilman who hasn't gotten religion over the proposed sports arena the city wants to build.

But to Pickler, utterly convinced about the rightness of his position, he's merely the loyal opposition.

"I have a real strong sense that I'm 100% right," Pickler, 69, said over a cup of coffee Friday, dressed in de rigueur Southern California retirement garb of slacks and a funny T-shirt.

Pickler, a councilman for 8 1/2 years, was on the arena bandwagon early on but has since bolted. The city has broken ground on a $100-million arena in hopes of luring a professional hockey or basketball team, or both. Santa Ana is planning a similar-size arena but also has no commitment for a franchise.

Anaheim Mayor Fred Hunter said he's certain that Anaheim is going to get the pro franchises, but he hasn't named any names so far.

Pickler said Hunter is basically full of hot air.

"If this thing were signed, sealed and delivered, I'd be behind it 100%," he said. "But we have no control over whether we get an NBA team or a hockey team. And hockey isn't even a Southern California sport."

But Anaheim clearly has the bug. In several other "on-the-move" cities around the country, such things as sports arenas and big-time convention centers are on the standard laundry list of necessities to make the cities appear to be major league.

San Jose, for example, persuaded voters in 1988 to approve building an indoor arena--without the promise of landing a pro sports franchise. The city since has been scheduled to get a National Hockey League expansion team in the next couple of years.

Enter Anaheim and Santa Ana. Hunter has included the arena in his vision of an increasingly dominant Anaheim.

Pickler has become increasingly concerned that civic pride, not to mention ego, may goeth before the fall.

"I think Anaheim already has the prestige," Pickler said. "We have the Rams, we have the Angels, we have Disneyland, we have the Convention Center. When we built Anaheim Stadium, we knew we had the Angels. When we enhanced it to take football, we knew we had the Rams.

"I'm a gambler. I go to Vegas quite often, I don't mind throwing my money around, and for $10 million this was worth it to me, but when you get up to the figures we're talking about. . . ."

Although no one can say for sure, Pickler is afraid that the city could be left holding a very large bag if it doesn't get a franchise or if the management group that plans to run the arena or its financial backers run into problems.

It's not that Pickler is predicting such dire events. It's just that he isn't sure what the future holds, and that's why he doesn't like the smell of this deal.

"We're on a fast track, and I don't think we need to be," he said. "If it costs $60 million to get a franchise and you're an owner and you have a choice of Anaheim, or, say, Sacramento or San Jose or San Diego, are you just going to walk in or are you going to say, 'Make me a good deal.'

"It's like the Raiders," he said, referring to how owner Al Davis pitted several potential cities against each other in a competition to get that National Football League team.

Of course, it's entirely possible that Pickler is just being a stick-in-the-mud. Not visionary enough to get with the program.

"From John Q. Public, I don't get that remark," he said. "I've gotten the remark, 'Why are we doing this?' "

As a guy who has been to Vegas plenty of times, Pickler said he'd take a walk right now, even if it means the city would forfeit the several million dollars it has already gambled on the arena.

"I think you take your losses and come back and fight another day," he said. "It's just like a war--you know when you're going to lose, you back away and regroup and come back later."

Luckily for us spectators, there will be a resolution to all this. History will eventually reveal who was right. Will it be the grand visionaries of municipal machismo who wanted to catapult Anaheim into a totally different league, or will it be the guy whose lone cries of "Not so fast!" were drowned out by the roar of the crowd?

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