County officials: No big money for Cincy MLS or arena redo, but maybe tax breaks or something

Hamilton County commissioners continue to make unhappy noises about funding either a new FC Cincinnati stadium or a renovation of Cincinnati’s arena, saying they have a lot of priorities other than new sports facilities right now:

All three commissioners are wary of repeating the mistakes they say county and city officials made more than 20 years ago, when new stadiums for the Bengals and Reds saddled county taxpayers with huge financial obligations.

“We’ve all lived to regret that,” said Commissioner Todd Portune.

Fellow Commissioner Chris Monzel said building stadiums, including the two the county already owns, shouldn’t be the business of county government.

“We have two facilities already,” he said. “That’s two too many.”

That’s pretty cut and dried, then, and—

The commissioners did not, however, rule out the possibility of helping proponents of a new arena and soccer stadium, even if they don’t approve a large public investment. While putting a higher sales tax on the ballot is the most likely way to raise big money, the county and city could pursue more modest measures, such as donating land, granting tax breaks or seeking help from state and federal grants.

So it appears the commissioners just don’t want to own a new stadium, but they’re maybe open to giving it public money? Or, more likely, they’re sending a signal that $100 million is a lot of money, and raising the sales tax just to renovate an arena that only really needs minor upgrades is a little nuts, but maybe ask for less and we’ll consider it. Which could be a reasonable “let’s not close any doors” approach, or could be a way to tell constituents that they’re not throwing money down any more stadium holes while secretly considering doing just that, or a combination of the two.

No, I don’t think the $38m PawSox stadium subsidy plan is a “win-win,” here’s why not

Joe Nocera, late of the New York Times op-ed page, has a new Bloomberg View opinion piece up titled “You Can Pay for a Ballpark Without Fleecing Taxpayers,” which namechecks this site and even provides a link, for which I should be grateful. Nocera and I failed to connect before it was published, though (he emailed me, I didn’t respond in time), so instead he is going to get berated here for misrepresenting my perspective, because that’s just how I like to bite the hand that feeds me clicks.

Anyway, here’s Nocera’s nut graf, where he brought me into the story:

In searching “Field of Schemes,” the go-to website for news about sports stadiums, I came across a rather different story, about the efforts of the Pawtucket Red Sox, the Triple-A minor league affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, to get a new ballpark. Although the dollars are far smaller (though not so small for Rhode Island), it does show that a team and a government can put together a deal that includes public financing but doesn’t hose the taxpayer. It’s kinda heartwarming, actually.

From there, it goes into a long, accurate description of former owner James Skeffington’s demand for $60 million in stadium subsidies, threatening to move the team out of Rhode Island if he didn’t get them. And then a long, not quite as accurate description of how after Skeffington’s death, team part-owner Larry Lucchino asked again for only $38 million in stadium subsidies, where the “city and state would receive a revenue stream that would not only cover the debt service but would probably make it a profitable venture for the government,” and “there were no threats” to move the team.

Okay, couple of things here. First off, the only revenue stream that the city and state will receive is “tax revenue generated in and around the stadium” — i.e., money that the city and state would normally collect anyway, but which would now be siphoned off to help pay for stadium construction costs via a tax increment financing district. There’s no way to reasonably project how much the TIF fund would collect — these things have failed spectacularly before — and more to the point, this is regular old tax money, not any actual revenues that the team would be giving up to help repay the public’s debt.

Secondly, about that “no threats” thing — not only did Lucchino just last week say he was going to look into moving the team out of Rhode Island, after promising two years ago not to do so until 2020, but Nocera actually linked to my post on that in his article. So, WTF, Joe?

Anyway, if Nocera wants to opine that the new PawSox deal is a better one for the city than the old one, it’s his column. (And he’s certainly right that it’s a better deal than Miami got for the Marlins stadium, though there are bank robberies that were better deals than that one, so that’s a pretty low bar.) But for the record, I would never call the new Pawtucket stadium plan a “win-win” — more of a “well, at least we got them to knock a few million dollars off their ridiculous subsidy demands, even if they’re still threatening to move Worcester.” Sadly, that’s a less grabby headline, but I’ll go with what I’ve got.

PawSox threaten to move just two years into five-year pledge not to threaten to move

Twenty months after promising not to move the Pawtucket Red Sox for at least five years in order to do “a repair job” on “wounds that were suffered by fans,” the team’s owners are back threatening to move the team:

“For more than a year, the Pawtucket Red Sox have worked cooperatively and exclusively with the City of Pawtucket and the State of Rhode Island to find a long-term solution to keep the PawSox in Pawtucket. The club promised such exclusivity through the state’s regular legislative session ending in June. This understanding was clear and made public on numerous occasions.

“While the dialogue with Pawtucket and Rhode Island officials will continue through a fall session, if called, the club will now also respond to other cities who seek to present proposals for potential ballpark sites. Given the uncertainty we face upon the expiration of our lease, and the timetables involved with these sorts of projects, we believe it is prudent and fair to follow this course of action.”

Now, I’m sure that the PawSox owners will claim that they’re sticking to the letter of their promise — even if the team were to move or try to, a new stadium elsewhere most likely wouldn’t be ready until after that five-year date in 2020 — but let’s be real: What’s going on here is that the Rhode Island state legislature wasn’t showing much urgency in approving its share of $48 million in requested subsidies, and team execs are hoping the threat of Worcester will light a fire under them. It’s a traditional part of the stadium-grubbers’ handbook, and “We don’t want to consider moving, but we have no choice” is a traditional “non-threat threat” way of presenting it.

So how realistic is the threat? More so than if this were a major-league team, if only because there’s no shortage of cities big enough to play host to a Triple-A franchise. So far there have been only “back channel” communications between the PawSox and Worcester, so presumably they haven’t started talking actual monetary figures — which, again, is in the team’s interest, because “Worcester is interested in us, better give us whatever we want!” is a much more effective threat than “Here’s what Worcester is offering us, can you match it?” Especially if Worcester doesn’t come up with a ton of cash, either. I’m not sure where “Get your customers to bid against themselves, it saves time” falls in the Rules of Acquisition, but I’m sure it’s in there somewhere.

FC Cincinnati: We need $100m in stadium cash because soccer fans use bathrooms differently

With FC Cincinnati Carl Lindner III demanding $100 million in public subsidies for a new soccer stadium, there has naturally enough been speculation about why the team can’t just keep playing at Nippert Stadium, where the team leads the USL in attendance, and it’s not even close (19,678 to second-place Sacramento Republic FC‘s 11,569). On Friday, however, team president Jeff Berding called using Nippert “implausible due to some insurmountable challenges.” Those challenges, according to WCPO-TV?

Entrances are relatively narrow, especially for soccer, where fans tend to march in together en masse.

Concession stands and restrooms are used differently, too, with soccer fans tending to rush to them together after the uninterrupted 45-minute first half.

Okay, so as ridiculous as “restrooms are used differently” sounds, there is some truth to this: You don’t want to go to the restroom or run out for a hot dog during play in soccer, since you might end up missing the one goal of the whole match. So there does tend to be a stampede to the concourses at halftime.

However, 1) it doesn’t appear to be dissuading fans from turning up at Nippert for soccer currently, 2) Nippert just underwent an $85 million renovation to, in part, build new concourses, 3) new stadiums haven’t done much to solve the problem of halftime soccer crowds, and 4) even if more restrooms are needed, surely those could be added for less than $100 million?

These are all important issues that WCPO seems not to have asked about, possibly because the station didn’t talk to anyone other than an FC Cincinnati exec. (And the University of Cincinnati’s athletic director, who just said they haven’t had any discussions yet about extending FC Cincinnati’s lease.) For an important topic like this, you’d think you’d want your reporter to talk to more than one team source, but maybe that’s just me and my old-fashioned notion of journalism where getting things right matters.

Bucks unveil tarpaulins covering new arena construction, and other Friday must-see news

And away we go with another weekly round of micro-news that shouldn’t be allowed to slip through the cracks:

Friday roundup: What arena glut looks like, and other news of our impending doom

Hey, I like this Friday news roundup thing! Let’s do it again:

  • A public hearing has been set for Elmont Public Library on July 10 to discuss the possibility of a New York Islanders arena near Belmont Park racetrack. Team owners Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin won’t have to submit their actual bid until after that, so who knows what everyone will be commenting on, but I’m going to try to go and report back, if I can figure out what time the hearing is, a detail that none of New York’s myriad news agencies seem to have reported on.
  • There’s a thing called the Canadian Premier League, apparently, though it’s more destined to be a second-tier league (think USL of the North) that can serve as development for Canadian soccer players. Anyway, assuming this gets off the ground, Halifax has approved plans for a privately funded 7,000-seat “pop-up” stadium on a public soccer pitch, which will be taken down once the season is over so regular folks can use the field — park users are a little gripey, as you’d expect them to be, but all in all it’s a far cry from the kinds of demands that minor-league soccer teams in the States are issuing, and promises to be far less of a disaster than most of the other things Halifax is known for.
  • Two out of three Hamilton County commissioners agreed to sign non-disclosure agreements before receiving details of FC Cincinnati‘s soccer stadium proposal, because it was the only way they could find out about the team’s plans. Apparently being on the deliberative body that will be deciding whether to give your team gobs of money just doesn’t hold the same kind of sway that it used to.
  • The Atlanta Hawks owners are considering building a mixed-use project around their arena similar to what the Braves did around their stadium, which Mayor Kasim Reed says is the result of the city handing over $142.5 million in renovation funds, no, I don’t understand that either. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution further reports that a new state law would allow local governments to kick back sales taxes to help pay for development in so-called “enterprise zones,” and okay, now it all starts to make sense.
  • One of the Detroit city councilmembers who voted to approve $34.5 million in subsidies for a new Pistons practice facility says she’s considering changing her vote after being deluged with complaints from constituents, but also said she believes the objections are “based on misinformation that I plan on trying to address or clarify at this public meeting on Friday,” so, we’ll see.
  • And finally, here is a photo showing three past, present, and future NBA arenas all side-by-side, because this is what 21st-century America thinks is a rational use of land, resources, and carbon footprint. Future alien visitors who find this as a relic of the civilization that once was, we can’t really explain it either.

F.C. Cincinnati CEO: We want to start Ohio-Kentucky bidding war to build our new stadium

As discussed last week, F.C. Cincinnati is considering stadium sites in either Cincinnati or Newport, Kentucky across the Ohio River, to the degree that its stadium renderings can’t seem to decide where they are relative to downtown Cincinnati. Now, though, owner Carl Lindner III has made clear that his intention isn’t so much to identify the best site as to get a bidding war going between the two cities in an attempt to shake loose $100 million in public money:

“It would be an exciting place, a transformational-type investment that would be made,” Lindner said of building a new stadium in neighborhoods such as the city’s West End.

But, he quickly added: “It’s ultimately going to end up being where we can get the support.”

This is a common gambit, and sometimes works — Minnesota United‘s owner playing off St. Paul and Minneapolis for tax breaks comes to mind — but sometimes doesn’t — think the Los Angeles Angels‘ owner’s failed attempts to shake loose money from Anaheim by threatening to move to Tustin, only to have Tustin turn them down for money as well. Best you can say is it’s worth a shot, though it’ll depend on elected officials in one city or another thinking that the presence of a soccer team will be worth more than $100 million in economic benefits, which isn’t likely. (Isn’t likely to be worth that much, I mean; what the officials will think I can’t say.) At that price point, for 19 home games of soccer, a reasonable response would be “Wait, somebody else will pay for this thing, and our residents still get to go see games just by going across a bridge? Don’t let the door hit you!”

Lindner’s best bet might be less playing the two cities against each other than shopping around his stadium demands around to every level of government — both states, both counties, both cities — in hopes of finding some group of politicians susceptible to the “If you build it, spending money will come” argument. That’s a lot of government bodies, and he only needs one to bite, so, sure, maybe — there have to be some politicians somewhere out there who can’t do math, right?

FC Cincinnati unveils stadium vaportecture, downplays $100m in tax money needed to build it

FC Cincinnati has unveiled renderings of its new stadium plans! Do they have fireworks? Do they have spotlights aimed pointlessly at the sky? Do they have poorly proportioned people and soccer goals that defy physics? You betcha!

Basically, it looks like a soccer stadium, only way more orange. Have your own fun picking apart the artistic skills of the renderers — my favorite is the way in the top photo there appears to be light streaming upward from the soccer pitch itself, which will no doubt be equipped with a fiber-optic turf surface — and keep in mind all the while that the main goal of this exercise is to get taxpayers in Cincinnati (or maybe Newport, Kentucky, across the Ohio River) to cough up as much as $100 million toward building this thing, because who can say no to women in tank tops holding scarves?

Cincy soccer team exec: We’ve never asked for subsidies before, so give us $100m as thanks

The owners of the USL’s F.C. Cincinnati are listening to Alexi Lalas and moving ahead with plans for building a new stadium as they prepare to apply for an MLS expansion franchise, and blah blah blah, here are some places they may want to build it, where’s the bit about who’ll pay for it? Here we go:

[FC Cincinnati President Jeff] Berding said FC Cincinnati is committed to spending $250 million of its own money — $150 million for MLS franchise fees and $100 million toward the stadium. Berding wouldn’t say how much public money the club wants, but he did say FC Cincinnati’s contribution would cover more than half of what’s needed to build a stadium. So it figures it could be asking for less than $100 million in public aid.

That’s a little on the vague side, but it does sound like “almost $100 million” is probably in the ballpark. Though as usual, until a funding plan is actually revealed, there’s no way to tell whether that’ll be almost $100 million total, or almost $100 million in direct construction subsidies, plus tax breaks and operating subsidies and what have you.

And either way, that’s a significant chunk of public change for a team that may or may not win an expansion franchise regardless of whether it gets a stadium built. (Or, looked at another way given MLS’s relentless expansion frenzy, might get a franchise eventually even if it played in a hole in the ground. Not that they play in a hole in the ground currently — F.C. Cincinnati currently plays at University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium, where they outdraw several MLS franchises, either a sign that they have the kind of fan base that can support a new building, or that they don’t need a new building, because the old one is plenty popular already.) A new group called No More Stadium Taxes has been formed to oppose the plan, as well as plans to spend public money on expanding Cincinnati’s arena, with attorney Tim Mara, a veteran of the Bengals stadium subsidy battles, on board.

The best part of this whole story, though, is Berding’s explanation of why team owner Carl Lindner III, son of the late billionaire Reds owner Carl Lindner Jr., deserves public funds to help build his private soccer stadium:

Berding also suggested public investment would be a payback to the Lindner family for its largesse over the years.

“Carl Lindner and his family have brought thousands of jobs to the city for decades and never asked for help,” Berding said.

I suppose that’s technically true of Lindner’s ownership of the Reds, since while he owned the team when Great American Ball Park opened in 2003, the bill that authorized it was passed in 1996, when Marge Schott still had possession of the team. (I’m not going to check into whether Lindner’s multiple Cincinnati-area businesses ever asked for tax breaks or the like, though that’d be a fun exercise for both readers and Cincinnati journalists.) But still, “We’ve always run our business with our own money, how about throwing $100 million our way in appreciation of us never asking for help before” seems a little off somehow — but I guess when you’re a billionaire asking for public funds, you need some kind of excuse, even if it’s just “My family has never screwed you over — yet.”

RI officials won’t vote on $38m PawSox subsidy demand yet, they have real work to do, okay?

I neglected to mention last week that the Pawtucket Red Sox had revealed the projected costs for their proposed new stadium, and it would be roughly $45 million from the team, $23 million from the state of Rhode Island, and $15 million from the city of Pawtucket. (The Providence Journal uses higher numbers because it adds up all principal and interest payments over time, which is stupid for the same reason it’d be stupid to add up all your mortgage payments over 30 years to describe the cost of your new house.) But you can forget all that for now, anyway, because the PawSox stadium plan appears to be going nowhere fast in the state legislature:

“The Senate has not received any legislation from the Governor’s office or the Pawtucket Mayor’s office,” [State Senate President Dominick] Ruggerio said in a statement. “At this point, it is too late in the session for a thorough, public review of a proposal of this magnitude. Should legislation be forthcoming, I am not opposed to reconvening in the fall to consider it in a deliberative and public manner.”

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello had reacted coolly to the PawSox’s latest stadium proposal, indicating it wouldn’t get House consideration unless related legislation was introduced at the request of Governor Gina Raimondo.

“Speaker Mattiello is not putting a deal before the House Finance Committee that was negotiated by the governor, as the chairwoman of the Commerce Corporation, without her endorsement and her stamp of approval,” Mattiello spokesman Larry Berman, said in a statement Tuesday. “The speaker finds it highly unusual that the governor is unwilling to endorse a financial plan that she and her team negotiated. The stadium is a significant taxpayer investment, and with the governor sending mixed signals, it is likely too late in the session to initiate a proposal of this magnitude. The House Finance Committee has a great deal of other work to do.”

Oof — declining to take action on a requested stadium subsidy is one thing, but saying “We have a lot of other work to do, don’t bother me”? That’s cold.

To their credit, Rhode Island legislators appear to recognize that they have no good reason to throw a bunch of money at the PawSox owners, especially when the owners have promised not to threaten to move until 2020 to heal “wounds that were suffered by fans” the last time they threatened to move. Coming up next, probably: More threats to move. This doesn’t seem to be working out too well so far for Larry Lucchino and his fellow owners, but remember, they only have to win once.