Olympic Training Center’s Future Unclear

2015-06-06 Olympic Training Center's future unclearSan Diego Union Tribune – June 6, 2015 – By Mark Zeigler  –

As training center turns 20, Chula Vista examines ways to keep it going.

The U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista will celebrate its 20th anniversary Sunday with an array of activities and sports demonstrations free to the public. You can fire an archery bow, shoot a field hockey ball, run blindfolded with a Paralympic guide, ride a BMX bike while gazing across the pristine Lower Otay Reservoir.

But gaze further into the future and the view becomes hazy. It’s a fair question as the training center turns 20: Will it get to 25? Or 30?

The U.S. Olympic Committee is committed to operating the center on 155 rolling acres through the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. And after that? Nothing and everything could change.

A year ago the USOC informed Chula Vista that it no longer wants to be the sole operator of a training center that costs $8 million per year. The city faced a choice: letting the center revert to parkland, as the lease dictates, or finding a way to preserve and enhance what has become an integral part of Chula Vista’s identity.

It opted for the latter and has since worked closely with the USOC to forge a partnership that continues to train U.S. Olympic athletes but generates enough auxiliary revenue not to dip into taxpayer dollars. To mine what city council member John McCann calls “a diamond in the rough.”

Both sides use words like “positive” and “healthy” to describe negotiations that are nearly a year old and will continue for at least another six months. They are close to signing a memorandum of understanding that they say mitigates risk and maximizes the center’s potential. The next step is a final, detailed agreement that the USOC’s board of directors and Chula Vista’s city council both must approve, most likely late this year.

But there is still risk, and if the change in operational philosophy means anything, metaphorically speaking, it’s that there won’t be a net on the archery range to catch errant arrows. They’ll have to hit their financial targets.

In the past, the USOC allocated an annual budget to its training centers without a mandate to generate revenue. Now a city council, theoretically, will have the power to amputate if it bleeds red ink.

“I feel very confident that this is going to work but, you know, I don’t have a crystal ball,” said Kelley Bacon, the deputy city manager of Chula Vista who is working full-time on the transfer. “The whole reason we’re spending so much time on this right now is so we have an operating model we know is not going to eat into the general fund and still support the programs, national governing bodies and athletes that the USOC wants to be trained here.”

The USOC has 16 “training sites” (as opposing to full training centers) that operate in a similar fashion, servicing Olympic athletes at a public facility while running revenue-producing programs. But those are generally for a single sport and in locales with a lower cost of living than Southern California. There is no blueprint on such a grand scale.

Delayed opening

It was never supposed to come to this, not when the USOC’s executive board overwhelmingly approved construction of its first warm-weather training center on Nov. 12, 1988. It was supposed to open in 1991, cost $41.5 million and include a multipurpose gymnasium, an aquatic center and dormitories housing hundreds of athletes. Instead it opened in June 1995, cost $81.5 million and had no gym, no pool, a quarter of the dorm space, eight fewer tennis courts, two fewer soccer fields — in all, about half the facilities originally planned.

It was designed to serve 14 sports. Six moved in.

There have been success stories, certainly. The U.S. archery team has won four Olympic medals since the center opened, including the men’s team title in 1996 and again in 2012. Sheena Tosta was kicked off three different tracks in Los Angeles a few months before the 2008 Olympics, moved to Chula Vista, found stability and won a silver medal in the 400-meter hurdles. The center is a global mecca for BMX cycling. Nine center athletes won medals at both the 2008 and 2012 Paralympic Games.
Twenty years later, though, there are still vacant pads of dirt for the gym and pool. A BMX track — mounds of dirt interspersed with pavement — sits where the additional residence halls were slated.

At fault, as much as anything else, is a USOC that went through as many leadership ups and downs, twists and turns, as a BMX track.

A new administration would take over, talk about the unpolished gem in Chula Vista, commission a task force to study its needs, launch a fundraising campaign … and then get replaced. The next administration would take over, talk about the unpolished gem in Chula Vista, commission a task force, launch a fundraising campaign … and get replaced.

At the 10th anniversary, which coincided with an international sports festival in San Diego, then-center director Patrice Milkovich sounded more optimistic with Peter Ueberroth running the USOC. She rode in golf cart across the center’s spine, dreaming aloud about a gym and pool and expanded dorms, even an Internet cafe where athletes could congregate and swap five-ringed stories.

“I can even smell the mocha frappuccinos,” Milkovich said.

She added: “It’s like being on the starting line for a race and there’s a false start, and you’re not the one who is causing the false start. You’re ready to run but all of a sudden you can’t. Hopefully, our tumultuous years are behind us.”

Consulting firm study

The USOC has steadied under CEO Scott Blackmun and Chairman Larry Probst, but the approach toward the training center has bent like the property’s native grasses in the afternoon breeze as the organization has shifted to a performance-based funding model. They had consulting firm (and USOC sponsor) Deloitte examine its financial viability and concluded that, as spokesman Patrick Sandusky put it, “we believe a third party may be able to operate and optimize the Chula Vista facilities more effectively than the USOC going forward.”

The two sides jointly hired JMI Sports, a local firm co-founded by former Padres owner John Moores, to conduct a feasibility study. JMI served another important role: repairing a sometimes tense relationship from years of unfulfilled promises and unrealized expectations.

“One of the key things here is that the city and USOC have really collaborated well and formed a strong partnership that could be a win-win for all stakeholders,” JMI Sports CEO Erik Judson said. “They’re not trying to rush into anything because this is a major commitment. There’s a significant amount of work to put together a definitive agreement. But they’re working really well together.”

They have not designated a name, although something like “Chula Vista Training Center in support of the USOC” is a likely candidate. There are also questions about whether the word Olympic will appear in the official name or the iconic five rings in the logo, which is important for the city’s Olympic image but could create sponsorship conflicts with the USOC’s existing corporate partners.

The USOC, according to several people familiar with the negotiations, has provisionally made a multiyear commitment to continue funding certain services associated with the center. The rest of the money it was spending on Chula Vista would be diverted to a sport’s national governing body, which would then pay the center for its athletes to train there.

The trick for Chula Vista, then, is finding sufficient outside revenue to cover the remaining overhead while a third-party management company handles the center’s day-to-day operations.

Bacon spent part of the week in North Carolina meeting with representatives from USOC training sites, swapping ideas on programs when U.S. Olympic athletes aren’t using the facilities — hosting international teams, corporate team building, youth sports.

Little change

The handover is targeted for Jan. 1, 2017. The athletes themselves, though, may notice little change.

“From the day the USOC is proposing to turn it over to the city,” Bacon said, “the elite athlete who is out there now will see absolutely no difference. Their nutrition will be the same, sports performance support will be the same, facilities will be the same.”

Selling the training center, which sits on prime property above the lake and is surrounded by housing developments, was not an option for the USOC. The San Diego National Sports Training Foundation raised the money and received a land grant from Eastlake developers to build the facility, and the original lease requires the USOC to operate it until 2025, after which it can sell.

If the USOC decides to cease operations before 2025, the property reverts to city with 100 acres designated as open-space parkland. The lone exception is 11 acres that the USOC leased for 21 years to the Easton Archery Center, a $14 million project nearing completion that includes an indoor range and residential quarters for the national team.

But what happens if they can’t make it work? What happens if a waterproof business plan begins leaking in four, five, six years?

“We’re looking at what happens in 2020, 2021, 2022, up through 2025,” Bacon said. “We’re saying we are committed to this. But things could happen. And if something does happen, which I really can’t picture, what then? We can’t just sell it off. What happens to the land? Part of the details we are working on now involve what percentage would stay with the city and what percentage would go to the USOC.
“Both the USOC and the city are going to have skin in the game. We’re both committed now. We’re working to ensure that we’re both committed long term.”

Meanwhile, athletes go about their daily routines in preparation for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio: archery, track and field, BMX, rowing, rugby, men’s field hockey, Paralympians.

As the 20th anniversary approached, the center asked its alumni to post Facebook videos about their fondest memories.

“Almost all of them have talked about the family atmosphere,” said associate director Dave Stow, one of six employees who have been there all 20 years, “just sitting in the dining room with athletes from other sports. It’s the coolest family. You can’t replicate that anywhere else on the planet.”

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