Why FCC's West End stadium play may not be dead yet

Recent activity — and coming legislation from Mayor John Cranley — suggest FC Cincinnati may still consider the West End a viable option along with Oakley and Newport.

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

Despite missed deadlines and ongoing drama, the prospect of a stadium for FC Cincinnati in the West End — should the team get a Major League Soccer franchise — has proven hard to kill.

Last week, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley promised he would introduce legislation designed to help the team build its facility in the West End, despite controversy around the site and fears from some residents about displacement, traffic and other concerns.

A committee from the West End Community Council March 26 delivered a list of asks that could form a legally binding community benefits agreement with the team should it come to the neighborhood — though some members of that committee have big concerns about the process by which that document was drawn up.

And though there’s still no sign of a deal between FCC and Cincinnati Public Schools, which holds key land the team needs to build a stadium, the district’s Board of Education left the door open just a crack with a resolution passed earlier this month.

All of that means it’s possible that the team hasn’t quite moved on to consider its other possible sites — Newport and Oakley — despite FCC setting a March 31 deadline for its stadium decision.

The mayor, at least, would prefer the stadium be built in the West End. Cranley has accused those opposing the site of “playing political games.”

Details of the mayor’s coming measures weren’t available at press time. FCC General Manager Jeff Berding has been meeting with the mayor recently, including just before a special session of city council March 29.

“Someone has to speak up for common sense,” Cranley said after he announced those ordinances were coming during a March 28 city council meeting. Some residents at that meeting, there to oppose the stadium, offered jeers. “Someone has to speak up for growth. We have a lot to decide about who we are as a city. Are we going to hold people hostage to political fights or are we going to support progress and growth," he continued.

Cranley’s comments drew pushback from some council members, including Tamaya Dennard, who called Cranley’s remarks “insensitive.”

“You have to understand things have taken place to get us here,” Dennard said, referring to the West End’s history of disinvestment and displacement of black residents. “The progress that has taken place in Cincinnati has been white and affluent."

City Hall isn’t the only battleground over the still-alive prospect for a West End stadium.

The CPS Board of Education earlier this month passed a resolution requiring the team to pay its fair share of property taxes in exchange for a land swap with the team for the district’s Stargel Stadium, where FCC would like to build its new soccer facility. FCC said it was moving on after seeing an earlier version of that deal, which would have required the team to pay as much as $2 million a year.

But the board’s final resolution has a couple of loopholes. It allows for a third party — read: the City of Cincinnati — to pay some of that money. It also clarifies that it only expects FCC to pay its fair share under the city’s 25-percent commercial property tax abatement policies, which were set in 1999. Thus, if the stadium FCC builds is appraised at less than $250 million, the team could be on the hook for less money — but maybe not that much less. Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes has confirmed that Cincinnati’s other major sports facilities — Great American Ball Park and Paul Brown Stadium — have retained 80 to 90 percent of their value two decades after they were built.

There are other signs the door remains open.

A committee of the West End Community Council on March 26 presented what it calls a "framework" for a community benefits agreement with FC Cincinnati should the team opt to build a soccer stadium there. But a couple of those committee members say that framework should not have been drawn up yet or at all.

The introduction to the 13-page CBA framework starts off by noting the council's 50-10 general body vote against the stadium and observes that stadiums generally have a large impact on neighborhoods where they are built.

"Professional stadiums represent a huge change in any community," the document reads. "They are a big land user, they create traffic and attract many visitors to a community during games and in low-income, minority communities in particular, they open communities to the kind of gentrification that can displace residents and make a community unrecognizable to its current residents. …The West End is just the kind of community that potentially has a lot to lose by becoming the home to a soccer-specific stadium."

Eighty-four percent of the West End’s roughly 6,000 residents are black, and 50 percent live below the poverty line.

Among the asks presented in the CBA document:

• Creation of a West End housing trust that will fund new affordable housing and support existing affordable housing as well as look at establishing renter equity and cooperative housing models. Currently, roughly 4,000 people in the West End have incomes requiring affordable housing. There are about 1,000 units of subsidized housing in the neighborhood.

• Creation of a number of youth programs.

• A detailed plan for replacing Stargel Stadium, the Cincinnati Public Schools facility FCC would need to tear down to build its stadium. FCC has proposed spending $10 million to build a new Stargel across Ezzard Charles Drive.

• Provision of neighborhood-wide free wireless internet, creation of job opportunities paying at least $15 an hour, vocational training opportunities and support for unions, hiring West End residents for up to at least 5 percent of the stadium’s managerial staff positions and provision of three storefronts for nascent local businesses at no rent for five years.

• Full mitigation of traffic impacts.

• Renovation of cultural sites like Regal Theater and First German Reformed Church, which will then be deeded to the community.

• Creation and funding of a CBA implementation oversight group made up of community members.

The creation of the CBA framework began with a meeting of the ad-hoc committee held the previous Saturday. That meeting was restricted to neighborhood residents, a CityBeat reporter was told. At least two members of the 13-member committee protested any CBA presentation to FCC after the council's general body last week voted against the team building a stadium in the West End.

In an email to West End Community Council President Keith Blake, the two also opposed presenting the document to FCC before it had gone back before the council's general body for a vote of approval.

City West resident Earnestine Hill, one of the committee members who wrote the email, says she's still distrustful after Saturday's meeting. Hill and other stadium opponents think that some members of the council are trying to reignite the potential for a stadium in the West End.

"I'm not sure who to trust at this point," she said. "It's an I-dont-know kind of situation."

Blake says FCC’s Berding told him to present a proposal and the team would take a look.

Blake, who voted in favor of the stadium, says he's not sure that the possibility of FCC in the West End is dead yet, but also says he's not necessarily "hopeful" about it either. The document the community council committee gave to FCC doesn't lock the group into anything just yet, and isn't a bid to woo FCC, Blake says.

"This is exploratory," he says. "My job is to make sure that, if they build a stadium here, the West End Community Council is at the table. My job isn't trying to keep a deal going."

Despite the activity, plenty remains to be puzzled out. For example, on March 19, an LLC controlled by two owners of startup LISNR purchased several key plots of land around 1515 Central Ave. that FCC had identified as part of the site of its stadium. 

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