Cincinnati Public Schools last night held another public forum on FC Cincinnati’s proposal that would swap land with the district so it can build a privately financed $200 million soccer stadium on the current site of Stargel Stadium near Taft High School in the West End. The team would then build a new Stargel Stadium on vacant land south of the current stadium.
Last night’s meeting saw many of the same concerns raised by residents about displacement, rent increases, traffic, noise and other issues. We’ve covered those concerns in previous stories, including this week’s news feature. The meeting also saw some supporters of the team’s bid to build in the West End, something that hasn’t happened in past meetings.
Some of those speaking in favor of the stadium were entrepreneurs and civic leaders with a stake in the West End, including Cincinnati startup Lisnr founder Chris Ostoich, who owns a building on Central Parkway.
“I'm in favor of this stadium. I'm someone who runs toward opportunity,” Ostoich said, claiming that the stadium would benefit the West End greatly through economic development. “Yes, toward money,” he answered a yell from the audience. “That's what opportunity means to me."
Others, including a few neighborhood residents, echoed that sentiment. A few pointed out that the stadium, with its promised community benefits agreement, would be less likely to gentrify the neighborhood than CitiRama, which was slated to develop the land the new Stargel Stadium would occupy into $250,000-$400,000 homes before FCC obtained a purchase option on the properties.
Those in favor included Tim Haines, a West End business owner. Haines said the stadium would bring “some gentrification,” but also a lot of positive things for the West End. Haines has been active in development issues in the neighborhood before — he was the main player in a 2013 kerfuffle over the Central Parkway bike lane because it would impact parking in front of his building on that stretch of street in the northern part of the West End.
Others were less sure about the stadium plan.
Emily Everhart Wells, a former Over-the-Rhine resident who currently lives in the West End, talked about mixed feelings as a relative newcomer to the neighborhood.
"I began this evening thinking that we ought to go full force ahead with an agreement with FCC to pursue this opportunity. I'm more skeptical now," she said. "There seems to be very little information and even less time. That being said, I hear gunshots and call the police because people overdose on my corner. This concerns me. I can't let my child walk down the street. I don't believe stadiums prompt economic advancement, but they can bring visibility. I hope if this happens we press for a community benefits agreement.”
Consistent with past meetings, a big number of neighborhood residents said they weren’t opposed to a soccer stadium by itself, but did not want it in their neighborhood.
Shirley Jones is the vice president of the Taft High School Alumni Association. “I want to speak to the sacredness of Taft High School and of the West End,” she said, noting the West End's special place in black history. "I'm not against the stadium, I just don't want it in the heart of the West End."
Ernestine Hill, who lives in City West, says she’s afraid she’ll eventually have to move out of the neighborhood if the stadium comes in due to rising rents. She says many of her neighbors have never been able to invest in home ownership and are thus vulnerable to big changes in the neighborhood.
“I remember when I first got the keys and walked into my apartment,” she said of her current residency in City West. “It was the greatest feeling in my life. What I'm scared of is, I don't own the home so I'm going to have to go if they say move. No one has considered what may happen to us."
Others, including Community Shares CEO Michelle Dillingham, sounded concerns about tax payments for Cincinnati Public Schools and potential tax deals for stadium construction.
“I'll vote for school levies until I'm dead, but this will make it very difficult depending on the decision you make on this,” attendee Barbara Boylan said. Boylan pointed out that FCC has said it won't pay less in taxes on the land involved in the stadium deal, but that land for the stadia doesn't currently generate property tax. That’s correct, according to city of Cincinnati officials.
During the meeting, FCC General Manager Jeff Berding sat in the audience taking notes. He says the team is listening to residents' concerns and is ready to sign a community benefits agreement with requests stipulated by the city and residents should it choose the West End. Both Oakley and Newport are also in play as potential sites for the stadium.
At the end of the board’s two and a half hour marathon meeting, board members struck a pensive note. If they’re leaning one direction or another on entering into FCC’s proposed land swap, they’re not showing their cards.
"There's no secret — there are still a whole lot of questions that need to be answered," said board vice president Ericka Copeland-Dansby, who noted she grew up in the West End at the meeting’s conclusion. "There's a lot of information. I'm also not happy in the way that the message has been given to the community. I've said that to these gentlemen. But I also respect these folks."
Other board members were similarly inscrutable.
“Someone is going to be happy, and someone is not going to be happy,” board president Carolyn Jones said. “And that's hard for us, because we look for the win-win. Whatever decision we make, it will be based in facts. We take your comments very seriously. Those are facts."
Three board members have received contributions from team owners or family members, according to campaign finance records. Dansby received $5,000 from FCC owner Scott Farmer and another $2,500 from owner and CEO Carl Lindner III. Mike Moroski received $125 from Berding. Moroski and board member Melanie Bates both received a $1,000 contribution from the family of Scott Farmer.
It is expected that FCC will hear about its bid to get a Major League Soccer franchise by next month. The team's plan to build the stadium hinges on that bid, and its plan to potentially build in the West End depends on a vote by the CPS board. It's unclear when that vote would take place. The board has said it recorded and will release all statements made at last night's meeting and will administer an online survey open until Feb. 25 for more community input.