A dedicated soccer stadium for FC Cincinnati is one step closer to coming to Oakley. Or somewhere else. Maybe.
Cincinnati City Council’s budget and finance committee voted Nov. 27 to advance a deal drawn up by Mayor John Cranley. The offer is $37 million in city funds toward infrastructure at the former CastFab site in Oakley. That committee, chaired by Republican Charlie Winburn, includes all members of city council, meaning the deal will likely get final approval.
FCC officials say they look at council’s approval primarily as a first step toward winning a Major League Soccer franchise and that the plans could change as time goes on. Cranley and supporters on council say there’s no time to waste in securing a “once in a lifetime” opportunity that they claim could unlock development creating thousands of jobs.
""I have no fear that within one year, this will be viewed as a historic no-brainer," Cranley said, touting talks with other employers who could come to the site if the stadium is built. "This is not a close call."
Cranley’s proposal would pull $7.2 million from two tax increment finance districts in Oakley near the stadium site, $2.5 million from the 2019 capital budget, $7.3 million in cash from the city’s sale of the Blue Ash airport and somewhere between $10 million and $20 million over time from the city’s portion of hotel tax proceeds. That last amount is one of the deal’s unanswered questions — the city puts its contribution at $20 million from that pot of money, though it varies from year to year and might not generate the expected $1.5 million a year.
Council members Kevin Flynn, David Mann, Amy Murray, Christopher Smitherman and Charlie Winburn voted for the deal.
“We’re going to be playing in the major leagues,” Winburn said before voting for the deal. “And sometimes you don’t have everything nailed down.”
Council members P.G. Sittenfeld and Chris Seelbach voted against the plan, saying the deal has too many downsides.
“The biggest problem I have is taking the $7.3 million from the Blue Ash airport and spending it on anything other than new District 5, the Western Hills Viaduct,” Seelbach said, ticking off other needs the city is facing. “Asking the public to help subsidize a team whose value will dramatically increase doesn't seem appropriate.”
Councilwoman Yvette Simpson, who abstained from voting, highlighted a number of questions lingering around the deal.
FC Cincinnati General Manager Jeff Berding implored council to look past the uncertainties and give the deal the green light so the team has a viable plan to submit to Major League Soccer, which will decide whether Cincinnati wins a bid for an expansion team Dec. 14. Berding and team owners, headed by Carl Lindner III, say they need a plan for a soccer-only stadium in hand to have a chance at that bid. Competing cities like Nashville have already nailed down plans for their stadiums, Berding said.
Berding, Lindner and other boosters didn’t have answers for all of council’s questions — including whether they will seek property tax abatements on the stadium site, what will happen to a gap between the projected $75 million infrastructure costs for the site and the $52 million the city and Hamilton County are offering, what public engagement will look like as the project rolls forward and if Oakley will even be the final destination for the stadium. Cincinnati's West End and a riverfront site in Newport, Kentucky are also still in play. But, they said, those aren’t the most important things to consider as the MLS deadline approaches.
“There’s no question that all the money for these infrastructure improvements that are identified by the city administration aren’t presently funded,” Berding said. “Our intention is to try and go to New York and win a franchise on the basis of a solid plan in place. Listen, this is the start of a process.”
If the math doesn’t work out on the infrastructure costs, Berding said, the team would have to go “back to the drawing board” on its plan.
There are other questions remaining. Cranley and other supporters have pointed out that FC Cincinnati is funding all $200 million of the stadium’s construction costs and that the city picking up the tab for infrastructure isn’t any different than any other economic development deal it might execute.
Simpson asked if the site would need $75 million or more in infrastructure if a more traditional project was placed there.
City of Cincinnati engineer Don Gindling, who estimated the site could need up to $85 million in infrastructure if a stadium goes there, said the city doesn’t know.
“That all depends on what development is going there, and then you’d have to do a traffic impact study for different developments,” Gindling said. “So we really can’t answer that.”
In addition, the project’s impact on Oakley remains unclear. Cranley touts the jobs the project will bring to the 29-acre site, only about half of which will be occupied by the stadium. The mayor says the stadium will activate serious development on the rest of the land. Much of that development would be owned by FCC, Berding suggested.
But economists aren't generally bullish about the economic development abilities of stadiums.
Jeff Capell, founder of anti-tax group No More Stadium Taxes, gave council a rundown of various economic studies that suggest stadiums don't produce much economic benefit for cities. He dismissed the idea that simply paying people to build the stadium would provide massive economic growth to the region.
"You could pay 1,000 people to dig holes and another 1,000 to fill them in and it will have economic impact," he said. "That doesn't mean you created value."
There are still other questions. The site of some planned road widening — sections of Madison Road and Vandecar Way will need to swell to five lanes, for example — could result in demolition of existing buildings. According to Oakley Community Council, that could include a handful of homes on Madison. It’s unclear how that would play out under the plan.
And parking could be a major concern. FC Cincinnati’s plan only calls for a1,000-car garage for a 21,000-seat stadium. Usually, city zoning rules require one parking spot for every five seats in a stadium.
A number of residents from Oakley and other neighborhoods crowded into council chambers to speak for and against the deal Nov. 27. The speakers were mostly opposed, but some die-hard FC Cincinnati fans also showed up to support the stadium deal.
Oakley’s Community Council itself seems conflicted about the proposal. It gave conditional approval of the plan earlier this month, then rescinded it last week.
Community Council board member Dave Schaff presented a number of documents to city council detailing economic development he said would not happen if the stadium was built, as well as outlining his opposition to use of Oakley’s TIF districts to fund the infrastructure.
But Oakley Community Council President Sean Fausto sounded a more supportive note, saying an adjustment by Cranley removing one of the three neighborhood TIF districts originally tapped for the project alleviated some concerns. The $2.5 million generated by that district was replaced with money from next year’s capital budget.
"This is a very difficult position for us to be in," Fausto said. “Do we support it, or do we not support it?”