Cincinnati City Council approves support for FC Cincinnati stadium in West End

Council today passed a $34 million package providing infrastructure around a proposed stadium in the West End should FC Cincinnati get a Major League Soccer franchise.

click to enlarge West End - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
West End

After a multi-hour committee meeting punctuated by high-flying rhetoric and the passage of a fourth version of an ordinance that will spend $34 million for infrastructure around a privately financed, $200 million FC Cincinnati stadium in the West End, Cincinnati City Council finally approved the deal.

Council voted 5-4 on April 16 to approve the money on the condition that the team enters into a community benefits agreement with neighborhood groups.

That deal drew ire from stadium opponents and a number of West End residents, who question the process by which a community benefits agreement was recently arrived at and who point out that there is now little leverage to enforce community groups’ requests from FCC.

Mayor John Cranley and stadium supporters on council cast the vote as a victory for progress in Cincinnati.

“I don’t believe the status quo is acceptable,” Cranley said after the vote. “I think it’s wrong. I think it’s immoral. I wanted to see a city that puts money back into the inner city. That’s a good thing — an inherently good thing. There’s so much of the debate over the past couple weeks that acts like we’re doing something negative to the West End. This is very, very positive.”

Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, who with Councilman David Mann drew up the legislation, said the stadium deal represents a positive for the neighborhood.

The vote comes after months of battling over what is appropriate for the West End. Its community council voted against the stadium, and many residents — including those who showed up on April 16 — have touched on the West End's difficult history with displacement and disinvestment via urban renewal, loss of subsidized housing and other struggles.

[More: why some West End residents are worried about a stadium in their neighborhood]

Sittenfeld and Cranley acknowledge that history, but cast the stadium debate as a binary decision: either say yes to the $200 million privately financed facility or do nothing for the neighborhood.

“The good we can do for people has to be married with the unfair history the West End has lived through. I acknowledge that the West End deserves better,” Sittenfeld said. “I wouldn’t be doing this, supporting this, to the extent I have, if I didn’t sincerely believe that we can do better for the West End. Other folks haven’t stepped up — I’m talking about elected leaders. There’s a collective shame on all of us. I think that better future can be married to this deal.”

Here’s the city money on offer to FCC under the deal, which assumes that the Greater Cincinnati Redevelopment Authority will enter into a own/lease back agreement with the team, exempting it from most property taxes and sales taxes on construction materials:

• $8 million from a tax increment financing district covering Over-the-Rhine and downtown. TIF districts funnel property taxes into special funds that can only be spent on infrastructure in designated areas.

• $7.2 million from the city’s proceeds from its 2014 sale of Blue Ash airport. Unlike other funding sources in the deal, that money doesn’t have restrictions on how it can be spent.

• As much as $1.5 million annually for 30 years from the city’s portion of the Hamilton County hotel tax fund.

• $2.5 million from the city’s capital fund

• In addition to infrastructure funds, the city is also offering a 15-year Job Retention Tax Credit worth 50 percent of the city income tax withholdings for FCC employees.

Opponents disagreed with supporters’ sunny projections about the stadium’s impact on the neighborhood, citing studies suggesting stadiums don’t provide economic development and can cause displacement.

Roughly 85 percent of the neighborhood’s residents are renters. Some 3,000 are below the poverty line, and another 1,300 make less money than needed to comfortably afford the average apartment in the city. Just 1,000 units of housing in the 6,000 resident neighborhood are locked into long-term affordability.

A number of West End residents, anti-stadium activists and others lined up to speak during the public comment session before the committee meeting.

“Can anything we say move you?” West End resident and community council secretary Tia Brown said. “This neighborhood... is being abused again. I will remember, and so will others, when it's time to vote."

Three residents from the neighborhood did speak in support of the stadium during the lengthy public comment session, accusing opponents of not being from the neighborhood.

City council members Tamaya Dennard, Greg Landsman, Wendell Young and Chris Seelbach voted against the plan, saying they couldn’t support the expenditure of city money for a stadium with uncertain economic benefits and without a clear and enforceable community benefits agreement.

Landsman was concerned that the deal as written would give up council's say on key elements of a CBA. Seelbach asked city administration what the city's return on investment would be for its $34 million.

There were few answers on hand for those questions — supporters Mann and Sittenfeld said the CBA could be addressed later, and the city's Community and Economic Development Department Director Philip Denning said his department didn't have figures on how much of an economic impact the stadium would have for the city.

Opponents on council stressed they support FC Cincinnati, but didn't hold back their ill will toward the deal on the table.

“Trickle-down economics doesn’t work,” Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard said. “We somehow keep thinking that if we supply people who already have money with money, it will trickle down to the working class. We can put a bow on it and say it in a number of different ways, but the truth is the truth.”

Among the issues left unresolved after the vote: What a community benefits agreement will look like, and who will be a party to it.

Councilman Jeff Pastor late last week convened a group from the West End Community Council’s Executive Board to work through a CBA with representatives from FC Cincinnati. During the committee meeting today, Pastor raised his voice angrily, accusing stadium opponents of lecturing him about poverty. Citing surveys provided by FC Cincinnati, Pastor called the idea that West End residents opposed the stadium “misinformation.”

"Black people are on both sides of this issue," Pastor said. "I don't want to be party to anyone who votes against $200 million in private investment in the West End."

WECC President Keith Blake and FCC President Jeff Berding signed the CBA that came out of those negotiations April 16 during a ceremony at City Hall just before council’s committee meeting.

“We have every intention from the start to be good neighbors to the people of the West End," Berding said. "In one respect, this has been an easy process. We want to be good neighbors. We want to be a catalyst for improving the quality of life for residents of the West End. This is an opportunity for being transformational.”

Included in that agreement: traffic mitigation, workforce inclusion efforts in line with city policy, community beautification efforts and handing over CMHA plots to the Port Authority for development. However, where council's version calls for affordable housing, the CBA calls for mixed-income housing "affordable to the income levels of West End residents." The plan also calls for a housing study to determine appropriate affordability levels.

In addition, the team would agree to pay at least $100,000 a year for 30 years to community groups, make a one-time $20,000 contribution to minority startup incubator MORTAR and provide support to scholarship and youth sports programs in the neighborhood.

Under the plan, which you can read here, a community advisory council would be set up to oversee implementation and final details of the CBA. That council would be responsible for agreeing to all quality of life and design elements of the stadium in the West End.

The community advisory board would be appointed by Mayor John Cranley and approved by Cincinnati City Council and would be made up of the following:

• Two members of the West End Community Council

• One member each from the neighborhood's community development corporation, business association and youth sports leagues, the City West Home Owners Association, the City West renter's association and Taft High School's Local School Decision Making Committee

• An FCC season ticket holder living in the West End

• An FCC-recommended three-year resident of the West End

• One Cincinnati City Council member

• One member recommended by the Greater Cincinnati Redevelopment Authority

• One Over-the-Rhine resident

The deal provides less than neighborhood representatives originally asked for, however, and the agreement is controversial.

At least two members of the WECC executive board say the CBA doesn’t represent the community, pointing out that the West End Community Council’s general body, which voted late last month against the stadium, has yet to vote on the CBA signed today. Changes to council's legislation mean representatives from Over-the-Rhine’s Community Council won’t be party to the agreement. OTR will get a separate process with the team to address quality of life issues instead.

Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses Executive Director Alexis Kidd, a WECC general body member, told council the CBA presented today is “rushed” and illegitimate.”

WECC President Blake says that the general body of the community council will get to vote on a CBA, and that today’s agreement isn’t the be-all, end-all.

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