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Top Stadium Figure Keeps a Low Profile in the Public Arena

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As the City Council prepares to put a $10.5-million baseball stadium before voters next spring, shellshocked ballpark promoters are wondering what role the central figure in the ballpark plan will end up playing in the effort to sell the deal.

Stadium developer John Hofer has never sought public attention in the past, his friends say. And he is so battered and bruised by the stadium controversy that one of his closest associates thinks he may not mount any kind of a public campaign for his pet project next year.

“John’s kind of frustrated. He’s sensitive, and you know I think he’s sore from the shots he’s taken,” said John Masterson, who manages an auto center for Hofer and has spoken for car dealers on the stadium issue. “He felt he was doing something very positive for the city, and those in the opposition have turned it around and made it sound like he’s the Thief of Baghdad.”

Both supporters and detractors agree the campaign to build a ballpark behind Hofer’s Ventura Auto Center needs a more public approach if the project is to overcome critics’ claims it would benefit Hofer and car dealers more than the rest of the community. That campaign was stymied last week when the City Council refused to approve the stadium without voter ratification.

Now, not only do advocates need to persuade voters that stadium finances pencil out in the city’s favor, but some associates say Hofer himself needs to sell his plan as the work of a pioneering Southern California family that bought a 125-acre farm nearly 100 years ago and now wants to make the community better and boost tax revenue.

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“John is not Donald Trump,” Masterson said. “We keep talking about ‘the developer,’ and the connotation is that he’s some L.A. guy who comes into town and then rapes and pillages until he leaves. And that’s 180 degrees from where we are.

“I think John Hofer’s been miscast as a black hat,” Masterson said. “He’s a white hat.”

A Storied History

Hofer, 46, is one of three brothers who grew up working the sprawling fields and vineyards of the historic Hofer Ranch near Ontario in San Bernardino County--a farm owned by his family since the 1880s.

After earning a degree in farm management and helping to run the ranch, Hofer moved to Ventura in the early 1980s to manage family affairs here. Those assets include the nine-dealer Ventura Auto Center at Johnson Drive, an adjacent self-storage business and nearly 100 acres of nearby farmland that has not yet been developed.

Hofer lives with his wife, Lisa, and their small son in a large, but not lavish, ranch-style home on 1.7 acres northeast of Ventura College. He bought the property at the edge of a picturesque hillside barranca in 1992, and it is now valued at about $600,000, according to county property records.

By all accounts, Hofer is a private man who avoids the public limelight. A man of average height with a slight, runner’s build, he has shown up at council meetings dressed casually--open neck polo shirts under a blazer, and slacks.

Friends say he’s an avid scuba diver, golfer and baseball fan whose modest office at the self-storage facility boasts a display case of autographed baseballs, bats, gloves, newspaper clippings and other sports memorabilia, including his father’s and grandfather’s football helmets.

Responding to requests for interviews last week, Hofer refused. He said he wants no additional public exposure, at least not so early in the campaign to persuade voters it is a good idea for the city to join him in a partnership to bring minor league baseball to Ventura.

If Hofer’s 4,500-seat ballpark is finally built on a celery field south of the auto mall near Johnson Drive, it will cover just part of the 125 acres Sanford Ballou bought from Southern Pacific Railroad in 1897, 1898 and 1900.

Ballou, Hofer’s great-great-grandfather who migrated from Iowa via Texas, had already purchased several hundred acres in San Bernardino County, according to records.

“He had money from gold mining, and the railroads were auctioning off land,” said Ventura architect Larry Rasmussen, a family friend who has worked with the Hofers since the 1960s. “He saw fertile land and he hopped off the train and bought it. And it’s been in the family ever since.”

The Hofer side of the family bought out Ballou’s holdings about 80 years ago, after Hofer’s grandfather, the first of three Paul Hofers, moved onto the ranch after World War I, family members said.

While the Ontario property flourished as vineyards and a winemaking cooperative in the renowned Guasti wine region, the Ventura parcels produced row crops until property tax pressures forced the family to consider new ways to make money from the land, said John’s older brother, Paul, last week.

The short-term solution in the 1960s was to build a Brookside Winery outlet store in a building that now houses the Volvo dealership on Perkin Avenue.

In 1972, the first of nine auto dealerships now on the property migrated from downtown Ventura.

In his years as manager of the auto center, Hofer has increasingly become a part of the Ventura community. His friends, business associates, relatives and City Council members paint a picture of him as a low-key and professional businessman who contributes to local charities and coached his son’s soccer and Little League teams.

Likewise, the Hofer family, whose ranch is on the National Register of Historical Places, has always been involved in the community in San Bernardino County, members said.

“We’ve always made huge attempts to be good citizens of the place where we live,” said Paul Hofer, 48, who still grows wine grapes and alfalfa on several hundred acres in the Cucamonga Valley. “Farming is all we’ve done. Every time you get a nickel ahead you reinvest it back in the operation.”

He laughs at perceptions that his family is wealthy and engaged in real estate development at the expense of the Ventura community.

“All you have to do is get up before the sun comes up and come back home after it goes down seven days a week for four generations, and then somebody wakes up one day and thinks you’re a rich businessperson,” he said. “I think we feel we’re pretty decent people, and maybe we’ve been a little unfairly judged.”

Sticking to Business

While John Hofer has tried to stay away from public scrutiny, he has impressed most City Council members during his ballpark campaign. They said he is particularly comfortable and persuasive when operating in a business or social setting out of the public limelight.

“He’s very unassuming,” said Councilman Ray Di Guilio, a stadium backer whose son Hofer coached in Little League. “He drives a Chevy Suburban and he probably could afford a Mercedes, or two of them if he wanted.”

Although most council members said they know little about Hofer’s business activities, they said they like him personally and were struck by the energy with which he pursued a stadium deal--including renting a bus to ferry city officials to other minor league ballparks in Southern California and stopping by his family’s Ontario ranch for lunch.

In fact, Hofer has been criticized for getting too close to the council, strongly supporting three members financially during their 1995 campaigns.

During intense negotiations with a City Council committee last summer, Hofer surrounded himself with experienced assistants, including a former mayor of Santa Ana whose company oversaw construction of another California League stadium and who would probably manage the Ventura facility.

“He hired some very competent people . . . and pretty much sat back and let them do their work,” said Councilman Gary Tuttle, a stadium critic on the council negotiating committee. “He was certainly not confrontational, and he was not rude. He was a gentleman.”

But as controversy escalated amid accusations of back-room maneuvering and a district attorney’s review this month of the council’s campaign contributions, Hofer has been absent from the public debate.

At recent City Council hearings on the issue, Hofer arrived late, slipped to the back of the council chamber or watched proceedings on a television monitor in a room down the hall. He has shunned photographers.

The City Council is set to vote on a final stadium deal Nov. 4, and then to place the project on the spring ballot. City Manager Donna Landeros, the city’s point person in negotiations, is still meeting with Hofer to firm up the developer’s collateral to make sure the city does not end up maintaining an empty ballpark if a Class A franchise fails here.

Family members, who meet regularly with John Hofer to talk over the Ventura operations, say they don’t know quite what to make of the stadium controversy or what will happen with the project now.

“I have talked to John for a grand total of a minute and a half since Monday,” Paul Hofer said Thursday. “I just don’t know. John is the point man.”

It is a role that John Hofer may not be naturally suited to play, at least now that the stadium deal is being debated in the political arena instead of just contract negotiations, associates said.

“John is not a public guy,” Masterson said. “It’s like the Republican and Democratic race. I believe that Bob Dole is a terrific guy, but I don’t know if he’s a great candidate. Some guys don’t translate. John’s personality is not to be out there shaking hands, being photogenic. That’s not him. He’s not Clintonesque.”


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