FC Cincinnati fans make big push for taxpayer-funded stadium

CINCINNATI -- As FC Cincinnati fans chanted and cheered for taxpayers to help fund a Major League Soccer stadium, Hamilton County leaders laid out a bleak reality: The county has too many projects and no way to pay for them all.

From an outdated convention center to the obsolete Western Hills Viaduct, Hamilton County Commissioners are trying to figure out how to pay for more than $1.5 billion worth of infrastructure, development, transportation and county building needs in the coming years.

"We have more projects than we have money," Hamilton County Commission President Todd Portune told a crowd of at least 150 people Tuesday night.

And a battle over one of the few sources of money left -- a small slice of sales tax that becomes available in 2020, currently being used to pay for a renovation of Union Terminal --  is already brewing. 

Portune called the meeting Tuesday to gather public comments to help decide which projects the county should fund.

FC Cincinnati's General Manager Jeff Berding led roughly 100 of the team's fans into the packed meeting, yelling "Build it here." It's no surprise that Berding, a former Cincinnati city councilman, was able to organize the loudest and largest display of political pressure in the room.

More than 30 people weighed in on a range of projects, but most begged commissioners to help post the $100 million FC Cincinnati is requesting from taxpayers to build a $200 million MLS stadium in Cincinnati. The team is currently contending for a spot in the MLS, and Berding said he needs a stadium deal hammered out before the end of the year.

"We're not here to ask that you only support FC Cincinnati because we have many needs in this community," Berding told the three-member commission. "But we're probably asking to be among the first, given the timeline of the decision."

FC Cincinnati's ask to be first in line is still a big deal.

Consider the following:

  • The county is grappling with an overcrowded jail, a dated courthouse and an aging Jobs and Family Services building -- all of which serve hundreds of county families. In 10 years, the county will be grappling with a $266 million maintenance backlog, Hamilton County Administrator Jeff Aluotto said.
     
  • The city's two current major league sports teams -- the Reds and the Bengals -- will eventually come knocking on the county's door for a new deal. The Bengals stadium lease with the county expires in 2026, and the Reds' lease expires a few years after. Combined, the two stadiums could need more than $200 million in upgrades within the next decade.

    "While no one is talking about demoing these stadiums, we know there will be substantial maintenance (needs)," Alutto said.
     
  • County taxpayers will need to help pay for some of the $330 million overhaul of the Western Hills Viaduct. Hamilton County Engineer Ted Hubbard has proposed paying for some of that project with an additional $5 driver's license fee.

    "It needs to be addressed and now," Portune said Tuesday.
     
  • A $230 million upgrade of the Duke Energy Convention center is necessary to keep visitors -- and their money -- flowing into the city, experts say. Another $10 million renovation of Sharonville Convention Center is also needed, Sharonville's mayor said Tuesday.
     
  • U.S. Bank Arena owners have asked the Port Authority to buy the deteriorating facility and for taxpayers to finance a $342 million demolition and rebuild it. The building's small and old conditions have caused the city to miss out on huge conventions, most notably the Republican National Convention last year, that would have pumped millions of dollars into the city's economy.

    "It allows Cincinnati and the county to compete," said Nederlander Entertainment COO Ray Harris. "We're willing to work with anybody to try and make Cincinnati better.
     
  • The Banks, which taxpayers have already invested $135 million to carve out on Ohio's river, remains unfinished.

Meanwhile, any money that would be used to pay for these projects is nearly tapped out.

The county can't collect any more hotel tax. Parking revenues generated from garages at The Banks are being used to pay down the debt on those garages. And the county can only legally collect a quarter percent more in sales tax, which would mean buyers pay 7.25 percent on every purchase, bringing in roughly $38 million every year. Hamilton County currently charges a 7 percent sales tax. 

That little room to fund even one or two of the projects discussed Tuesday. 

"There is not now, and never will be, enough money to ever fund every major capital project that is before you for consideration," said Tim Mara, a Cincinnati attorney and government watchdog who led the charge against a tax increase to pay for Paul Brown Stadium and Great American Ball Park more than 20 years ago.

Mara was one of a few speakers who urged commissioners to oppose any taxpayer funding for a new FC Cincinnati stadium.

"It makes no sense to divert scarce money to building a soccer stadium when these vital needs remain unfunded," he said.

Commissioners are bracing for a fight over the quarter percent sales tax increase, currently used to pay for a restoration of Union Terminal, that expires in 2020. That sales tax generates roughly $38 million every year. It's been floated as a way to pay for the Western Hills Viaduct, the FC Cincinnati Stadium and, now, U.S. Bank Arena. 

In a statement released just moments after Tuesday's meeting ended, U.S. Bank Arena leaders called for the county to use that sales tax money for a $342 million overhaul of the 42-year-old facility. That plan would require a seven-year extension of the sales tax. 

But the clock is ticking for the county to strike a deal that would keep FC Cincinnati on the Ohio side of the river, dozens of soccer fans draped in orange and blue reminded the commissioners Tuesday night.

"We have time to do the other projects later, this one needs to take precedent," FC Cincinnati Max Ellerbe said.

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