In an unfathomable series of plot twists yesterday in the Cleveland Cavaliers $70 million glass-wall subsidy saga, this happened:
- Cleveland city council president Kevin Kelley called for an investigation into primary subsidy foes Greater Cleveland Congregations, on the grounds that GCC … got funding from outside the city, I guess? Which wouldn’t be illegal or anything, but would be bad, because damn meddling out-of-towners?
- Cavs owner Dan Gilbert tweeted that contrary to what a county lawyer had threatened, “I will never move the Cleveland Cavaliers out of Cleveland. Period. And that’s unconditional.”
- Four of the five GCC members who’d filed the petitions for a public referendum on the Cavs subsidy deal — which is what had led Gilbert to pull out of the plan — wrote to Cleveland City Council Clerk Pat Britt that they were withdrawing the petitions. In exchange, Cuyahoga County — not Gilbert — had promised to build two mental health and substance abuse crisis centers that the GCC had been seeking.
- Cavs CEO Len Komoroski declared that the arena renovation deal was back on the table, and that “we are very encouraged by this new development related to the private-public partnership plan to transform The Q for the long term.”
As the Cleveland Scene makes clear in its analysis of the crazy day, what happened here is that the county responded to Gilbert calling an end to the arena renovation plan by contacting GCC and asking if there was anything they could do to get the referendum campaign withdrawn. GCC’s price, it turned out, was the two crisis centers, which will cost the county an estimated $10 million to build, and $2.8 million a year combined to run. Once the county agreed to that — though it doesn’t appear that there’s actually anything more than a handshake agreement — GCC agreed to scrap the entire petition drive.
Of course, GCC was actually part of a broader coalition that had put together the referendum campaign — though GCC had been the ones to file it, so they could withdraw it unilaterally. And as the Scene makes clear, those coalition partners are now pissed:
GCC had been vilified as scheming extortionists by the pro-deal side and will now be vilified as sell-outs by their opposition allies. Members of other opposition groups, like the SEIU and the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus, are dismayed, if not furious. Some feel betrayed, sold out.
One activist told Scene that they spent hours collecting signatures for the referendum in order to “kill the deal, not help GCC make a deal.” The county’s commitment to investigating the costs of crisis centers — itself a tiny fraction of what GCC initially hoped to attain — is in any event considered to be vastly less important than the victory for democracy that has been short-circuited.
(Cutting a deal with your opponents without even telling your coalition partners, incidentally, is what really should be known in the community-benefits game as a “Bertha Lewis move.”)
If this is how the Cleveland arena battle ends, and it could well be, it’s a truly incredible result — and one that drives home my longstanding worry about “community benefits agreements”: It makes it relatively easy for a team owner (or, in this case, a local government) to neutralize public concern over a subsidy deal by buying off whatever community groups are spearheading opposition. (For the Brooklyn Nets, it was even simpler: Fund the creation of your own friendly community groups, then cut a deal with them.) It’s nice that GCC extracted something from the county that will actually benefit Cleveland citizens more than arena renovations, I suppose, which wouldn’t have happened without the referendum drive. On the other hand, yeah, democracy sounded like a nice idea for a minute there.