The Cleveland Indians‘ home stadium, which is named after an insurance company for the moment, was opened in 1994 and got $57 million worth of future tax money to pay for upgrades in 2016 and now the team’s lease expires after 2023, and you see where this is going already, don’t you?
There’s an off-the-field game already underway that’s even more critical to the future of baseball in the city: How county taxpayers will pay for a major renovation of the ballpark that first opened in 1994…
The team is re-imagining the ballpark and is asking Gateway to help pay for it, just as Cavs owner Dan Gilbert asked for help renovating Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. That renovation cost $185 million. The Cavs kicked in more than $100 million toward the cost. County taxpayers put in $70 million (plus interest on financing).
As for where the money will come from, Gateway Development Corp. chair Ken Silliman says that selling development rights around the stadium will be considered. The county has previously floated the idea of a 1% hotel tax hike, while the state has so far turned down county requests for additional cash. All this is on top of the “sin tax” on alcohol and cigarettes that helped pay for new buildings for the Indians, Browns, and Cavaliers, and which was extended in 2014 to help fund additional improvements, but the Indians have already spent that money, so are asking for more, please!
The unstated assumption in that WKYC report, of course, is that because Indians execs are “re-imagining” the stadium, it’s up to taxpayers to foot the bill — or, really, necessary to do another round of renovations at all so soon after the last one. (Not that the last one was that hot, but that’s what team management decided to do with their gift of tax money.) The implied threat is that the team won’t re-up their lease after 2023 without a new publicly funded upgrade plan, which seems dubious, since they’d have to find another city ready to host them just four years from now, and even cities Cleveland’s size aren’t easy to come by — Sacramento, Charlotte, and Portland are close, but none of them could have stadiums ready by 2024 unless they started construction pretty much now.
But let’s go all realpolitik and assume that pay-to-play is just the new reality, and Cuyahoga County will have to cough up something or else risk losing the team to some new city of climate refugees set up in the Utah desert or something. (We’ll leave unquestioned for the moment why the county didn’t demand lease extensions with its teams in exchange for the last round of increased sin-tax money.) How many years of lease extension can Cleveland expect to get in exchange for more upgrade cash? Silliman says the team and the county development agency “share a desire to get a healthy lease extension,” but “healthy” means different things for both sides, as the Indians owners are going to want to extract a maximum dollar value per year of extension, and those values are historically all over the place, from $3.8 million a year for the Tampa Bay Lightning to $14.6 million a year for the Carolina Panthers.
This is a major problem — possibly the major problem — with sports stadium finance coverage, which tends to focus on “Where will it be built?” and “Where will the money come from?” rather than “What will the public get in return?” and “Is this really necessary at all?” We’re still very early in the latest Indians demands, so there’s plenty of time for more in-depth investigation. Not that the local paper has a great track record for this sort of thing, but we can always dream, can’t we?