West End Community Council prepares for what could be final negotiations with FC Cincinnati

Residents voted to approve a new attorney and negotiation team, but didn't get to hear what that group will ask for from FC Cincinnati

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click to enlarge Cincinnat's West End - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Cincinnat's West End

The West End Community Council last night made the final preparations it could before an 8 a.m. negotiation with FC Cincinnati and representatives from the city to try and get the best deal possible for the neighborhood as the soccer team eyes a privately financed, 21,000-seat stadium there.

But the council’s general body didn’t get to hear what the neighborhood will be asking for in those negotiations, and won’t have a chance to approve those demands before Cincinnati City Council votes on them today.

Plenty of residents were upset with that situation, but with city council poised to vote on a deal tomorrow, time is running out.

“No, I was not happy with the stadium. I was not,” said Joan Barnett, who lives in Park Town Apartments. “But when we made the decision to vote against the stadium, we said, ‘It’s going to come anyway.’ Now we need to move forward.”

Others were still angry, however. The stadium has been controversial, with many in the neighborhood fearing it will lead to displacement.

“I’m really fed up, because every time I turn around, there’s a clause or a stipulation or an underhand around this,” one resident said. “I’m sick of it. There are people who really want to be a part of this… things are not being explained the way we need them to be."

The council’s general body in March voted 50-10 to oppose a $200 million stadium financed by FCC in the neighborhood. But, citing its own polling of residents, the team says it will move forward with building on the site of Cincinnati Public Schools' Stargel Stadium and build a replacement for that facility across the street.

At its meeting, WECC’s general body approved a new attorney to represent residents in those negotiations, voted to remove council president Keith Blake and pastor Nick Burnett from the team negotiating the CBA and reintroduced a motion to impeach Blake after the council’s executive committee said a procedural snag derailed an attempt last month to impeach him. WECC executive board member Robert Killins, Jr. says Blake was served with notice of his impeachment within the required five days, but that notice wasn’t served by the WECC’s secretaries, as stipulated by the council’s bylaws.

Kristen Myers of law firm Beckman Weil Shepardson, who says former Cincinnati City Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Yvette Simpson recommended her for the job, will now represent the residents at the team’s expense after WECC rejected John Curp, the attorney picked by FC Cincinnati. Sources close to the negotiations between residents and the team say FCC shot down other suggestions for attorneys before approving Myers.

The general body voted 33-6 to approve Myers, an Over-the-Rhine resident, despite reservations from some residents about the fact she is being paid by FCC. That’s a standard arrangement in CBA negotiations, she said.

“This is not new to CBAs,” Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses Executive Director Alexis Kidd, a WECC general body member, said. “When you have a smaller party who cannot afford a lawyer, the developer oftentimes pays for a lawyer. My biggest problem with the last one was that not only did they pay for him, they actually picked him. This time, we picked. And she got vetted like crazy. It took a lot of support from City Council saying the West End needed to choose our own lawyer. What I don’t want to do is go into a negotiation blindly without representation. So far, what I‘ve seen of Kristen, I have full confidence.”

Negotiations with the team began Saturday, the first time Myers met with residents. A seven-member group drawn from an ad-hoc committee of the WECC also met Monday night with Myers to discuss possible requests from the neighborhood for the team.

Myers said at the meeting last night that discussing those asks could compromise negotiations.

That’s “certainly less than ideal,” she says, but without some kind of effort to get a better deal from a CBA, the neighborhood could be left with the agreement Blake signed last month. An expert on CBAs told the Cincinnati Business Courier that agreement was very favorable to the team and didn’t have clear enforcement mechanisms.

“I know typically, this body ratifies anything that is done,” Myers said. “The problem is, we don’t have the time for that. We’re afraid that if we go in and negotiate something tomorrow and then wait to bring it back to this body, that train is going, and they’ll have approved the old CBA agreement before these changes can take effect.”

The group that meets today will be different from the original seven-member team, with Blake and Burnett — who is a pastor at a church in Over-the-Rhine and doesn’t live in the West End — voted out. The new group will include WECC executive board member Tia Brown, Marq Casey, Shanel Gentry, Nick Johnson, Alexis Kidd and Amber Potts.

Casey, 25, was originally supposed to be one of the negotiators Saturday, but stepped aside to make room for "more seasoned" community representatives, he said. Last night, after some discussion, the WECC general body voted him back onto the team after voting Blake and Burnett off.

Following today’s meeting between the team and residents, Cincinnati City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee is set to vote at 1 p.m. on approving a CBA between neighborhood groups and the team. That committee includes all members of council, and anything that passes that group will likely receive full council approval at its 2 p.m. meeting. Should no agreement be reached, council could fall back on an earlier CBA signed by WECC President Keith Blake. That agreement, which has the council as a third party beneficiary and not a direct party, was rejected by WECC’s general body last month.

That agreement, which you can read here, calls for at least $100,000 a year to community groups in the West End, a neighborhood parking permit plan, a one-time, $20,000 grant to Mortar, the minority business accelerator, the transfer of a purchase option on 60 plots of land owned by the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority to the Greater Cincinnati Redevelopment Authority, which will find a developer who will develop mixed-income housing and contribute to an affordable housing fund via a program called Voluntary Tax Incentive Contribution Agreements, minority workforce inclusion efforts by FCC and creation of a youth sports league by the team.

“We have essentially been told that the city council members are interested in the community having the opportunity to improve on that document, and to come back to the table with FCC,” Myers said. “If that doesn’t happen, it sounds like what could happen is that city council could move forward using that other community benefits agreement that has already been signed. So our feet are being held to the fire. … The general thought is, if we don’t engage now, we’re likely to lose the ability to engage.”

Meanwhile, Over-the-Rhine's Community Council is also still fighting to have a say in the potential stadium's construction. A group from OTRCC met with FC Cincinnati representatives last week to outline concerns over noise, traffic and other issues. The stadium will front Central Parkway, just a few hundred feet from OTR.

“In the absence of an announced deadline from MLS, we have asked City Council to ensure that we have time for an authentic negotiation with the team,” said Mark Manley, co-chair of an ad-hoc group of the council, in a statement today. “The construction of a stadium just hundreds of feet from our homes will have a significant impact on the lives of residents, during construction and operation. We’re pleased that both City Council and the team leadership support an agreement to address these issues.”

FC Cincinnati's plans to build the stadium hinge on the team winning an expansion franchise from Major League Soccer. The team is competing against Sacramento and Detroit for that franchise, and many league watchers view Cincinnati as the favorite. It's unclear when the league will make its decision. FCC announced recently that MLS officials will tour the potential West End site soon.

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