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Cooper Agrees to Sell Arena Lease, Gulls to Investors

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Developer Ron Hahn and former Padre president Ballard Smith head a group of four investors who intend to purchase the Sports Arena lease and the Gulls hockey team from La Jolla millionaire Harry Cooper, Hahn said Saturday.

Talks surrounding the sale of the arena lease have been ongoing for three to four months Hahn said, but after lengthy negotiations early this weekend, Hahn signed a letter of intent to purchase the Gulls, and San Diego Arena Corp. and San Diego Entertainment Inc., of which Cooper is the primary owner.

“Harry agreed to sell to us,” Hahn said, “All the terms have been agreed to. Escrow will open next week and it should take 60 to 90 days to close.”

Efforts to reach Cooper, his partner Richard Esquinas, and Gull vice president Vin Ciruzzi were unsuccessful.

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But Gull General Manager Don Waddell met with Ciruzzi Saturday evening, and according to Ciruzzi, the team hasn’t been sold.

“Ownership here is saying it’s not a done deal,” Waddell said. “Vin Ciruzzi talked to Harry Cooper (Saturday), and it’s not a done deal.”

Waddell said Cooper and Hahn were expected to meet again Monday, but Hahn said by the beginning of the week, work on finalizing the deal will have already begun.

Joining in the venture are Sam Marasco, Hahn’s partner at Land Grant Development, and Jack Queen, vice president of Bateman Eichler Hill Richards Inc., a Los Angeles securities investment firm.

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Like Cooper, Hahn’s group will attempt to build a 22,000-seat, state-of-the-art arena in San Diego to lure the National Basketball Assn. and the National Hockey League.

But unlike Cooper, Hahn will focus strictly on downtown sites. Cooper favored putting the arena on 38 acres of land he owns in Sorrento Hills.

“We’ll start working on it right away,” Hahn said. “We won’t break ground for two years, and 1996 would be the earliest date to be able to play. The first step is to get this deal finalized, then work on the new arena has to commence immediately. (The NBA or NHL) won’t commit to a city without an arena on a new site that’s able to sustain and support them for the next 20 years.”

The sale of the arena comes only two years after Cooper purchased the lease from Graymont Ltd. of Canada, on the city-owned land in the Midway District near the junctions of Interstates 8 and 5.

Hahn declined to comment on why Cooper gave up his dream of NBA and NHL franchises in the new arena in San Diego, but recent health problems--Cooper underwent heart surgery recently--and lack of support from city officials might have factored into his decision to sell.

“I’d just as soon not speculate,” Hahn said. “We’ve had a great relationship through all of this. He was especially helpful in putting my package together.”

According to Hahn, limited partner interests could increase the investment group’s number, but at this time, “they are not identifiable. Right now what we have is a general partnership, although the shares may not be equal.”

Hahn wouldn’t disclose the terms of the agreement, saying one of the conditions of the present sale was to let Cooper handle the release of the figures.

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One of the preferred sites for the proposed downtown arena is Center City East.

“It fits in well with downtown redevelopment,” said City Manager Jack McGrory, who added that city officials were skeptical of Cooper’s North County arena location plans. “I think it’s good. When you look at downtown at what’s happening there, an arena could really help the restaurant business and the hotel business. It could be a big boost.”

Until his group meets with representatives of the principal tenants already in the arena--the Sockers, the Gulls, San Diego State’s men’s basketball and Kobey’s Swap meet--Hahn said there are no immediate plans to change the status quo.

“Absolutely none,” he said. “But in the next few months, we need to sit down and see what their desires are.”

There are 24 years left on the lease of the 25-year-old Sports Arena, which Cooper at one time had talked about razing. Hahn said that was not an option.

“The city and I would have to negotiate on the cancellation of the lease or some vehicle to recycle that land,” Hahn said. “Right now, it can’t be used for anything but the Sports Arena.”

In the two years Cooper’s had the arena, Hahn said events have escalated from 158 to its present 200 a year. It is a trend he would like to continue.

“We will try to fill the open dates,” he said. “Harry’s done a good job of adding to the events, and we’ll continue to do so.”

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