Long before Carson and Los Angeles trotted out grand stadium designs and deep-pocketed backers to battle for a professional football team, another Southern California town taught everyone how not to bargain for an NFL franchise.
Quarry-pocked Irwindale, about 18 miles east of downtown and the Los Angeles Coliseum, gave the Oakland-Los Angeles-Oakland Raiders a $10-million “deposit” a dozen years ago. The city of 1,000 residents lost the cash when the team decided not to move there after all.
To make matters worse, Irwindale had sunk an additional $10 million into legal fees, environmental studies and other expenses.
Total loss on the doomed NFL bid: $20 million.
Looking back, city officials wish the money would have gone to local upgrades. Truck-damaged streets could have been resurfaced, unsightly overhead electrical wires might have been moved underground and aging storm drains could have been replaced, they say now.
Dressing up Irwindale’s bleak industrial landscape, they say, would have made it easier to draw retail stores, car dealers and other revenue-generating businesses.
Robert Griego, who became Irwindale’s city manager two years ago, has a warning for those hoping to boost their civic fortunes through NFL glory:
“Don’t get star-struck when an owner comes to town, paints a big picture [of a new stadium], and passes out hats and pins.”
Current NFL bidders in Los Angeles say there is no way they’ll suffer the same fate as Irwindale. So far no one has offered money simply to draw a prospective owner to the negotiating table. And the sting of Irwindale is fresh enough that movers and shakers know better than to present a similar proposal, based largely on promises, to local residents.
“There will be no Irwindale here,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is leading an effort to get an NFL team to play in the Coliseum. “We’ve learned from our past experience. We won’t be taken. We’re too smart for that.”
The Irwindale football deal fell apart over two years, finally collapsing in 1989. The deal was held up first by lawsuits over the project’s environmental impact and city subsidies, then was aborted by the Raiders because of Irwindale’s inability to arrange financing and secure a definite site for the stadium.
The fumbling brought Irwindale national ridicule, but at the time, the city could afford to take a hit. Its population, then as now, barely topped 1,000. With more than $65 million in general reserves and redevelopment funds, the city was known for its perks. Beach trips for children and haircuts for seniors were just some of the free benefits for residents.
But the Raider deal soured about the same time that the Southern California real estate market crashed. That stalled development and hurt Irwindale’s sand and gravel mining industry as construction slumped.
Residents and city leaders began feeling the pinch and regretting more than ever that the $20 million was gone.
To balance its budget, the city in the last two years has had to scale back the civic largess that residents had long enjoyed. Irwindale’s prescription drug plan--which allows residents to fill any prescription for $3-- has not been touched, but other programs have been trimmed.
Residents must now pay $1.25 to feast on chile relleno casserole or pancakes at the senior center. Children’s trips to the movies and senior benefits such as haircuts for men and hairstyling for women now require a co-payment.
“They’re dollar-ing people to death, and it’s aggravating a lot of them,” said Frederick S. Barbosa, 49, a former City Council member and a lifelong resident.
Barbosa was a leading opponent of the 1987 effort to land the Raiders. He said he opposed the deal because he believed Irwindale’s $10-million deposit was an illegal gift.
Barbosa never thought a football team would have generated the kind of money for the city that its backers hoped for.
“The restaurants and stores [which would have benefited from game crowds] are in the surrounding areas,” Barbosa said. “It would have helped every city except us.”
Griego said the city’s hard times can’t be traced solely to the Raiders’ deal.
“Development is still driven by the economy. The last five or six years were pretty rough, and we wouldn’t have seen that much of a difference [with an NFL team],” he said.
Irwindale is now pinning its hopes on more mundane development plans. One of the 14 rock quarries in the city is being filled and will be the site of a 107-acre business and industrial park.
And there is a new stadium in Irwindale. The Irwindale Speedway, an auto racetrack with half-mile and one-third-mile ovals, will open March 27. With 6,500 seats, it is one-tenth the size of the proposed Raider stadium. The city did not foot any part of the $7 million needed to build it.
The city appears to have steered clear of overtly risky business since its bad bet on the Raiders. Even as budget deficits loomed, residents four years ago voted down a proposal to build a potentially lucrative card club on what is now the racetrack site.
The current quest for an NFL team in Los Angeles may have bypassed Irwindale, but other speculators continue to put out feelers. Irwindale’s attractiveness lies in the vast amounts of undeveloped land over its 9 square miles, and its location at the crossroads of the Foothill and San Gabriel River freeways.
City officials were recently approached by a developer who wanted to put a dome over one of the quarries and fill it with machine-made snow for skiing.
“A lot of people look at all the open space and come in and explore,” Barbosa said. “You get a lot of dreamers.”
Griego said many of those who pitch grand schemes for the pits “are fishing to see if the city will do something” like offer millions of dollars in incentives. Since the Raiders’ fiasco, however, the town is wiser to the ways of the world, and isn’t likely to hand out cash to strangers, he said.
And many local residents who might once have felt burned by Raiders owner Al Davis now mostly take their loss in stride despite some bitter memories.
Nell Tapia, 73, said she wants Davis to stay in Oakland.
“His team isn’t good anyway,” she said.
Hong is a Times staff writer. Winton is a correspondent.