CPS Board: We'll Do Our Homework on FCC

The school board promised it would put West End residents and the district's interests first in any possible deal with FC Cincinnati as the team mulls a stadium site.

click to enlarge Cincinnati Public School Board - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Cincinnati Public School Board

West End residents, alumni of Taft High School and others came to a Jan. 31 Cincinnati Public School Board meeting to express their concerns about overtures FC Cincinnati has made to the district about a potential “partnership” in the neighborhood. The team sent that feeler out to the board in a letter earlier this month as it mulls where to put a potential soccer stadium should it get a Major League Soccer expansion franchise.

The board’s seven members stressed they haven’t seen anything more than a letter requesting a meeting from FCC, and that they’re not selling any property without engaging the community first.

"We don't even know what we're being asked to do,” CPS Board Vice President Ericka Copeland-Dansby said at the meeting. “We have lots and lots of rules. We can't just give up property.”

FCC, for its part, says it’s just doing its due diligence on potential stadium sites in the West End and Oakley. Late last year, the team locked down $52 million in infrastructure aid from Hamilton County and the City of Cincinnati for a stadium in the latter neighborhood. The team says it will proceed carefully with future plans for either neighborhood.

But recent developments have put some residents on alert. The Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority Jan. 30 voted to grant FCC a purchase option on 66 parcels in the West End north of Ezzard Charles Drive for housing. Meanwhile, news outlets have reported that the team is interested in Taft High School’s Stargel Stadium.

Earlier this month, West End Community Council President Keith Blake said no one from FCC had reached out to him about the team’s plans and that the community felt “disrespected and ignored.” Later, after talking with representatives from the team, however, Blake said he trusted that FCC would do thorough community engagement around its plans.

Others aren’t yet convinced.

“Generations of families have lived in the West End and want to continue living there,” Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses Director Alexis Kidd told the CPS board. “Your decision affects that."

Kidd was one of several speakers who asked that CPS seek a community benefits agreement from any land purchaser. Such an agreement would hold a developer to certain standards — including requiring hiring workers from the neighborhood, building affordable housing and other stipulations.

CPS Board Member Mike Moroski, while reiterating that it’s unclear what FCC’s intentions are, said he would be interested in exploring a community benefits agreement should it get to that point.

Other speakers also expressed worries about how a potential stadium could change the neighborhood, a big concern in the predominantly black community that has seen decades of disinvestment and a historically sticky relationship with development. In the early 1960s, a large chunk of the neighborhood was destroyed as I-75 was built, displacing roughly 30,000 residents.

"The West End's history is rich with devastations,” resident Tia Brown said. “We know that development is needed, but we want it to be equitable with the community at the table."

The demolition of low-income housing like Laurel Homes and Lincoln Courts as part of the federal government’s Hope VI program in the early 2000s has also left sour memories, even though that program resulted in the construction of mixed-income developments. Laurel Homes and neighboring Lincoln Courts, constructed in the 1930s, were once home to 5,000 low-income people. They were down to roughly 1,100 units of old, deteriorated housing  when they were demolished during that program, and about 630 new units of housing were eventually created. Some residents who were promised housing in the neighborhood were never able to come back, groups like the Cincinnati NAACP say.

The NAACP cited that history in a statement demanding that the soccer team be transparent about its plans.

“The West End is a historically African American neighborhood that over the years has seen the fabric of its community strategically and systematically torn apart and gentrified in the name of 'progress' and unfulfilled promises," the group wrote in a Jan. 31 press release.

That release said the NAACP is reserving judgment until definitive plans are unveiled. FCC says it’s just in the beginning stages of exploring the West End as a site for the stadium, and that it intends to do much more talking with residents there. Representatives from the team will meet with the West End Community Council Board Feb. 13 to discuss the situation.

"I understand that there are fears that FC Cincinnati’s stadium could negatively impact Taft High School,” FCC General Manager Jeff Berding wrote in a statement the afternoon after the meeting. “I wish to put these concerns to rest. While there are several configurations that could work, none of them touch the High School building. We look forward to discussing how FC Cincinnati could support Taft High School directly in new soccer programs, new student internships, new extracurricular fundraising opportunities and other ideas as determined when we meet with CPS and Taft staff, parents and students.”

But concerns go beyond the high school itself. The neighborhood’s complex relationship with sports stadiums has surfaced repeatedly during discussion of a soccer stadium there.

“I’m not saying it doesn’t need to be in the West End,” resident Carol Brown said during the CMHA meeting Jan. 30. She remembers relatives who were unable to afford Reds games at the West End’s Crosley Field and who watched from the mound that would soon become I-75. “It just doesn’t fit in the middle of a residential community.”

CPS Board member Ryan Messer said those concerns should be first and foremost when the district considers any deal that FCC proposes. Messer was also somewhat critical of CMHA’s quick move to commit to selling properties.

“I want to thank CMHA,” Messer said during the Jan. 31 board meeting. “If they did one thing for us, they showed us how not to make decisions."

Board member Lannis Timmons, however, said that not everyone in the West End is necessarily against the stadium, and that the board should consider all sides of the situation.

The district has other things to consider beyond the stadium’s impact on the neighborhood. Several board members also expressed a firm commitment to making sure that the district also gets whatever tax money is coming to it from any development that happens due to the stadium. Things like TIF districts, tax abatements and other incentives could chip away at the district’s take when it comes to property taxes, board members said.

Julie Sellers, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, echoed that point.

“I'm here to ask that the district hold strong in any negotiations with FC Cincinnati to make sure they pay their fair share,” the union leader said.

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