Groups protest stadium in West End as pieces fall into place for FC Cincinnati

FC Cincinnati has gotten a key deal from the Cincinnati Public School Board, and others from Cincinnati City Council and the county port authority are getting clearer. But West End residents opposed to the stadium say they're not backing down.

click to enlarge NAACP First Vice President Joe Mallory speaks to attendees at a rally against an FC Cincinnati stadium in the West End - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
NAACP First Vice President Joe Mallory speaks to attendees at a rally against an FC Cincinnati stadium in the West End

A group of West End residents, anti-stadium activists, faith leaders and politicians gathered outside Taft Information Technology High School in the West End April 11 to protest the stadium coming to the neighborhood.

Those protesters say they’re worried about displacement that could be caused by the stadium, noise and traffic. The focus of their ire over those issues: FCC, City Hall and the Cincinnati Public School Board of Education.

The protest comes after the CPS Board voted to approve a deal on April 10 swapping land behind Taft currently occupied by the district’s Stargel Stadium with the team so FCC can build its stadium there. The district will receive a $10 million lump sum in that deal and payments in lieu of taxes afterward.

The next day, the City of Cincinnati released a memorandum of understanding detailing a deal put together by Cincinnati City Council members P.G. Sittenfeld and David Mann that could allow the construction of FC Cincinnati’s stadium in the West End. That deal would provide tens of millions of dollars in public funds over the next 30 years to help with infrastructure around the stadium.

City council’s MOU lines out where the public funds would come from:

• $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

The MOU estimates the cost of the stadium will be roughly $212 million. That’s higher than the estimate in the CPS Board’s deal approved earlier this week. That deal estimates payments to the district on the assumption the stadium will cost $175 million.

FCC President Jeff Berding thanked council for the plan after it was announced April 6. The deal, which could be necessary for FCC to win a Major League Soccer franchise, came as the team said it was facing deadlines from the league.

"Today, we needed a breakthrough that could build on our public support," Berding tweeted. "Projects only get done in Cincy when they have the support of 5 members of City Council. Today, Council Members Sittenfeld + Mann stepped up with a win-win plan to make a West End stadium possible. Thank you!

Council will mull the deal early next week.

Meanwhile, the Greater Cincinnati Redevelopment Authority this week indicated that it would support the team's West End bid by potentially entering into a buy-lease back agreement with FCC. That would allow the team to avoid paying sales taxes on construction materials and give support for financing the stadium through bond issuance. It could also mean the team wouldn't have to pay property taxes on the stadium — though it would still make payments to CPS.

There has been some support for the stadium from groups and individuals who live in the West End. But there has also been loud opposition to the project. The general body of the West End Community Council voted 50-10 against the stadium coming to the neighborhood, and other community groups are also opposed. A number of residents spoke out about the potential facility at the April 11 protest. During that event, the crowd of between 80 and 100 occasionally broke out into raucous chants of “FC go home.”

Contina Davis, a West End resident and the Vice President of the Liberty Street Apartments Residents Council, says she’s against the stadium. The Liberty Street group is one of several apartment resident associations, including those from large developments like Stanley Rowe Towers and City West, who have signed written statements to the school board and city council opposing the stadium. Those groups claim they represent nearly half the residents in the West End.

“No one should make a decision about you, for you, without you,” Davis said. “That’s why we keep coming out, because they keep making decisions without us. We voted no, and that vote should stand.”

Part of the agreements between FCC and CPS and the pending deal with City Hall hinge on the team signing a community benefits agreement with community groups. That could be sticky: though a committee of the West End Community Council submitted a framework for a CBA to the team last month, members of that committee have said they're not sure of its status. Meanwhile, city council's deal seems to put a $100,000 annual cap on any CBA between the team and neighborhood groups.

CPS' resolution puts a June 30 deadline on a CBA. It's unclear what council's deadline for that agreement would be. At least one council member, stadium supporter Jeff Pastor, initially indicated he wouldn't vote for any deal with the team until a CBA was in place.

As FC Cincinnati waits for the final pieces to fall into place, some African American groups and elected leaders are standing with residents opposed to the stadium.

“I grew up in this community, and I stand in solidarity with everyone who opposes this stadium being placed in the West End,” Cincinnati NAACP Vice President Mallory said. “The reason why we took our position is because we know what comes next: gentrification and displacement. In 10 years, this community will look completely different than it does today. The property taxes will increase, rents will increase, people will be displaced.”

While it’s hard to know how a major project like the stadium will effect nearby residents, economists generally agree that stadia don’t bring much economic development to the neighborhoods surrounding them. But they can have other impacts. A 2012 study by researchers at the College of William and Mary and the University of Alberta that analyzed data from the neighborhoods surrounding every NHL, NBA, NFL and MLB stadium in the country acknowledged that primary economic development may not be spurred by stadium construction, but also found that stadia generally raise property values, and thus, property taxes, in many places.

That’s a positive, the study’s authors say, as the increased property values will increase a municipality’s tax base. However, that increase is likely to have other consequences, including rising rents and property speculation.

There are more immediate concerns as well, some opponents claim. Mallory said at least one business and a resident will have to move immediately as buildings across from Stargel on Central Avenue are torn down to make way for FCC.

While it looks likely that Sittenfeld and Mann have enough votes to pass their deal with FCC, it’s not a slam-dunk yet. The deal could be a hard political pill to swallow at a time when the city faces a $25 million budget deficit. The proposal has also exposed some fault lines within council’s Democrat majority.

Councilman Wendell Young is one of three council members who have publicly expressed opposition to the stadium.

“I’ve heard over the past several weeks how miserable it must be to live in the West End,” he told the crowd at the protest. “I’ve heard how the conditions in the community are due to the abject neglect from the people who live here… I came here to tell you that just like everything else you’ve been hearing, that’s a bunch of lies, too. The reality is, the West End is a wonderful community. This is a community that should have a voice as to what happens here.

“Jeff Berding and John Cranley and, I hate to say it, P.G. Sittenfeld are not listening to you," Young said. “They’re not hearing you today.”

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