Soccer stadium battle reaches fever pitch

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley is set to announce his proposal on city help for FC Cincinnati's stadium as the team indicates it's looking across the river to Newport.

click to enlarge FC Cincinnati plays at University of Cincinnati's Nippert Stadium - Hailey Bollinger
Hailey Bollinger
FC Cincinnati plays at University of Cincinnati's Nippert Stadium

We’re in the thick of the battle over FC Cincinnati’s proposed self-financed $200 million stadium — reportedly aimed for the former CastFab site near Oakley Stationand the $75 million price tag for related infrastructure the team wants taxpayers to pay.

Meanwhile, FC Cincinnati President Jeff Berding has indicated the team could take its ball back and go across the river. One of the team’s original three sites was on the riverfront in Newport, and that location is even more in play now that the club is self-financing its stadium. Berding has said FCC is in talks with Newport officials about potentially moving forward with a site called Newport Ovation next to Newport on the Levee.

Berding has indicated he’d rather build a facility with restaurants and bars in the middle of a neighborhood, and that Oakley is his first choice. But the team is keeping all options open ahead of a Dec. 14 deadline for its Major League Soccer expansion franchise bid, as uncertainty continues around locating the stadium in Cincinnati.

Mayor John Cranley is set to announce his plan for making that happen this afternoon, but it seems unlikely the city would be able to cover anywhere near the full cost of the infrastructure. Meanwhile, Hamilton County Commissioners aren’t budging from their offer — consider Paul Brown Stadium first, and if that’s a no-go, the county will throw down $15 million for a 1,000-space parking garage.

FC Cincinnati claims they’ll lose some $167 million at PBS over the next decade, though, including substantially more the first year than the $2 million they stand to lose in a new stadium they build. What’s more, they say a shared stadium won’t win them a bid for an MLS franchise, the whole reason they’re pushing for the new stadium in the first place. MLS wants control of scheduling and revenue at an expansion team’s venue, something they wont get in a share situation.

There are a lot of questions. What does Cranley have planned? In the past, he’s indicated tax increment financing districts — which use increases in property tax revenues from raised values of nearby buildings to pay for debt on infrastructure projects — could be a way forward for the stadium. He’s also asked county commissioners to relinquish about $1.5 million the county got from taxes collected by hotels within the city limits this year so the city can use that money toward the stadium’s infrastructure. That fund varies from year to year, however, depending on how many visitors stay in Cincinnati hotels.

Another question: Would the parking garage proposed by FC Cincinnati be big enough? City zoning ordinances require a parking space for every five seats in a stadium. That means FC Cincinnati will either need to get a zoning variance or build a 4,100 space garage.

There are also bigger questions as yet unanswered. Will the stadium significantly drive growth? Some in St. Louis, which was also mulling a soccer stadium, point to a lack of evidence from economists that stadia do much for local economies. Other outside commentators on Cincinnati’s situation specifically point out the state of play a couple hours north in Columbus, where its MLS team, the Columbus Crew, may soon decamp for Austin, Texas, despite having a dedicated soccer stadium.

"FC Cincinnati seems to have really built something without the help of MLS," opinion writer Marcus Hartman wrote for Cox Newspapers. "They’ll be fine without it — perhaps better off in the long run considering the league’s questionable business practices and the uncertain time ahead for sports television revenue."

But can FCC really maintain its momentum without leveling up? CityBeat sports columnist Jack Brennan has doubts about that.

MLS owners will gather in New York City next month to decide which two teams will get expansion nods this year. Sacramento is basically already building a stadium for their bid. Nashville already has the green light for their own facility attached to theirs. Does Cincinnati even have a chance? Well, yes. FC Cincinnati has been a powerhouse when it comes to drawing people to games, outpacing every other team in the second-tier United Soccer League by almost 10,000 fans.

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