How Long Beach’s flirtation with the Angels turned into something more

Long Beach has the ocean, the Queen Mary, lofty high-rises—and the buzz of new beginnings.

Downtown “is very hot right now,” Assistant City Manager Tom Modica wrote in an April email to John Carpino, president of the Los Angeles Angels.

Anaheim, meanwhile, is the consistent, if boring, standby: It has plenty of land, easy access to freeways and a long track record with the major league team—which, like any mature relationship, comes with periods of strife.

When the team announced last fall it was opting out of its lease at the “Big A,” a stadium built in 1966, Long Beach made its move: Officials pitched a new and exciting waterfront ballpark in an urban locale overlooking the ocean, akin to Petco Park in San Diego or Oracle Park in San Francisco.

Documents released this week revealed some previously unknown facts about a potential stadium in Long Beach—namely its rough cost and how such a stadium might be paid for—but also the work that’s gone into such a massive project, and the enthusiasm local officials have harbored toward the idea for years.

It is also now clear that in the six decades Long Beach has flirted with the Angels, the city is closer now than ever before to a partnership with a major professional sports team and the clout that would bring. For a city just shy of a half-million residents—and perpetually in the shadow of Los Angeles—the prospect has ushered in palpable giddiness.

“We have an amazing opportunity,” Mayor Robert Garcia said in an interview this week. With a stadium comes jobs, new construction, visitors from around the world and “the community pride that comes with sports.”

With a pat on the head, Anaheim is playing along. Long Beach is indeed a “fantastic city,” said Anaheim spokesman Mike Lyster. “We appreciate the ambition the city has.”

But the Angels already have a stadium—and though there’s work to be done, “we have some advantages.”

The Angels, for their part, are playing it cool.

“We get approached by cities all the time,” Marie Garvey, spokeswoman for the team, said in an interview this week. “This is nothing new.”

Though she assured: “Right now we’re only talking to Long Beach and Anaheim.”

A long courtship

The Angels scouted Long Beach for a stadium as far back as 1963, just two years after actor and singer Gene Autry purchased the franchise and the team played its first season in the American League division.

The team wanted to build a stadium where El Dorado Regional Park now sits, but the two sides couldn’t agree on key details, including a name: The city insisted the team be called the Long Beach Angels; Autry wanted the Southern California Angels (he eventually dropped “Southern”).

The team shared a home for a few years with the Dodgers at Chavez Ravine until Angel Stadium opened. It is now the fourth-oldest ballpark in the majors, and, despite renovations over the years, has lost its luster.

In an April ranking of major league ballparks, Angel Stadium ranked an embarrassing 27th out of 30, besting only Oakland Coliseum, which has had numerous issues with sewage backing up on the field; Tropicana Field, described as a “1990 barn where the quirks aren’t charming;” and Rogers Centre in Toronto with its sterile exposed concrete, according to Ballpark Digest.

When the Angels terminated negotiations with Anaheim five years ago over a new lease and began talks with the city of Tustin, Long Beach waved and smiled.

“The city has land on the ocean, next to the Queen Mary,” Councilwoman Suzie Price, then newly elected to represent the 3rd District, wrote in 2014 to Tim Mead, then a vice president of the Angels. “Is this a partnership you would be interested in?”

Price, who works as an Orange County deputy district attorney, knew Mead because she helped prosecute the case against Andrew Gallo, the man convicted of the 2009 death of Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart.

It was a horrific case that garnered national media coverage: Hours after starting the previous night’s game, Adenhart, 22, and two others were killed when Gallo, who was drunk, ran a red light and broadsided the car they were riding in. A fourth passenger was critically injured.

Price said this week that she reached out on her own because she had a relationship, saying it was a casual email, “just an inquiry, nothing more.”

Mead forwarded the email to Carpino, the team president, who told Mead to reach out to Arte Moreno, who bought the team in 2003 from the Walt Disney Company.

In the email trail released this week, Mead asked for Price’s number, but the conversation went nowhere, she said; a short time later, the Angels began negotiations again with Anaheim.

‘This is a big one’

In June 2017, the city was again circling the Angels, though it’s unclear what prompted the renewed interest.

Mayor Garcia’s chief of staff, Mark Taylor, had a meeting with Alex Winsberg, general counsel for the Angels.

“It was brief, polite,” Taylor said this week. “It was nice.”

The city then deployed John Keisler, the director of economic development, for a follow-up meeting.

“John, as you know, Mark had a good meeting with Angels reps,” Garcia wrote to Keisler. “I know you are going to meet with them next. Just a note that this is a big one. Really hoping we go all in to see if this is a possibility.”

But the city was stood up; the second date never happened.

“We called a bunch of times, but they never responded,” said Keisler, adding that the details were fuzzy. “I believe we tried (to reach them) into July.”

He said the city was far more focused at the time on developing a plan for the Downtown waterfront. Officials were in negotiations with the Grand Prix of Long Beach over a new lease for the shoreline race, which runs along the 13-acre lot next to the Long Beach Arena—the site the city is eyeing for a ballpark.

Though plans for the shoreline were still unclear, the city didn’t want to lock itself into a long agreement with the race that would preclude future development.

That same month, in June 2017, the city commissioned a study by an architecture firm, Gensler, and in March 2018, the firm showed the city what could be built on this prime piece of land: concert halls, parks, arena, stadiums, hotels.

The report showed colorful comparisons to such seaside cities as San Francisco, Vancouver and Boston, with unique dining, entertainment, retail and attractions along the water.

The report paid particular attention to the idea of a sports venue, plunging Dodger Stadium, Angel Stadium, and Petco Park, among others, to scale into Long Beach’s open lot.

“We wanted to evaluate all of our options,” Keisler said.

Getting serious

A few months after the Gensler study was complete, in September, hope for the Angels sprung anew as negotiations between the team and Anaheim stalled. The next month, the team pulled out of its lease.

Garvey, the team spokeswoman, said the Angels had a choice between ending the lease or locking itself in for 10 years: “We needed more control over our long-term future.”

It was then that talks with Long Beach became more than casual flirtation.

A separate economic study looking at the waterfront, which had already been underway, pivoted to the specific quest of a ballpark—and all the tedious details that kind of project would entail: parking, finances, legislation, environmental approvals.

It’s a lot to overcome, those involved concede. But officials were, and remain, optimistic. They worked to present the Angels with something to think about.

Discussions between Long Beach and Anaheim picked up significant momentum in January. Calendar listings show City Manager Pat West, Modica and Carpino, the team president, met in late January and again in February at the Bixby Ranch Company building in the Los Cerritos Wetlands near the city’s border with Orange County.

The building, and land, is owned by Frank Suryan, a prominent real estate developer and Long Beach resident who had helped shepherd the talks.

Asked about the strange location—the building is a squat flat surrounded by out-of-service storage tanks and a grid of power lines, in a weed-choked oil field—Modica said the team wanted to meet away from City Hall. “So that’s where we met.”

The Bixby Ranch Company building in Long Beach. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

But efforts to keep the talks quiet did not last. More people, including members of the City Council, had been brought up to speed; excitement was building.

In late February, the Post broke the news that the city had approached the team and that “preliminary discussions” were taking place.

Records from the city of Anaheim, which the Post obtained earlier this month, show some damage control took place; Carpino, the team president, wrote a text message to Chris Zapata, Anaheim city manager, alerting him to the story and assuring that the team was still interested in staying.

“It certainly is easier” to negotiate a deal with Anaheim, Carpino wrote.

What now

The team expects to make a decision—whether to stay or go—by year’s end.

Since late February, a handful of meetings have taken place between Long Beach officials and the Angels—this time in City Hall, or on conference calls. The City Council met in closed session about the deal in March; nothing was disclosed.

Officials have also clamped down on messaging about the talks. City Manager West sent a memo in late February to all nine city councilmembers urging them to direct media calls to the city spokesman and “not make individual statements” so that we are all “on the same page.”

Thus far, months of back and forth have resulted in a two-page draft of terms and conditions for a potential mixed-use development project. The March 22 draft was sent to Chip Carey of Shoreline Investments, LLC—the entity the Angels are using to conduct discussions with Long Beach.

Both the city and the Angels described the term sheet as a broad statement of direction.

“It’s a starting point for conversation,” Keisler said.

It’s intended to ensure the two sides “are walking on the same road before any details are discussed,” Garvey said.

Aside from a “world-class” ballpark, the term sheet indicates the city would want support for its tourism and waterfront, the creation of housing and other community benefits—and importantly, a positive net fiscal impact on the city’s finances.

Garcia said more specific plans would undergo a lengthy public airing, and that—though officials are excited—any deal must be good for Long Beach.

“If the team comes here, it has to be because we say, ‘yes,’” he said.

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Melissa has been a journalist for over two decades, starting her career as a reporter covering health and religion and moving into local news. She has worked as an editor for eight years, including seven years at the Press Telegram before joining the Long Beach Post in June 2018. She also serves as a part-time lecturer at Cal State Long Beach where she teaches multimedia journalism and writing.
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