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Hamilton County Commissioners want FC Cincinnati to use Paul Brown Stadium

Berding: MLS bid doomed in that case
LIVE: Will Hamilton Co. fund FC Cincy stadium?
LIVE: Will Hamilton Co. fund FC Cincy stadium?
Posted at 12:53 PM, Nov 15, 2017
and last updated 2017-11-16 08:36:50-05

CINCINNATI – Before they contribute public money, Hamilton County commissioners are insisting to try to convince Major League Soccer and FC Cincinnati that county-owned Paul Brown Stadium is a viable option for hosting an MLS expansion team.

It figures be a tough sell - one that might jeopardize FC Cincinnati's chances to move up to the major leagues, according to FC Cincinnati President Jeff Berding. Or send FC Cincinnati packing to play in Northern Kentucky. 

An MLS spokesperson, Dan Courtemanche, responded with this statement to WCPO late Wednesday afternoon:

"MLS continues to prioritize soccer-specific stadiums as a criteria for the selection of MLS expansion markets."

But commissioners reiterated Wednesday that the county has greater needs and they won't spend tax money on a soccer stadium. 

Commissioners gave a part-no, part-yes response to FC Cincinnati’s request to join the city in making $75 million in public contributions to pay for infrastructure at a proposed site at Oakley Station.

Speaking for the three commissioners, Commission President Todd Portune said they first want the opportunity to make the case for PBS with MLS and FC Cincinnati. If they fail to convince them, commissioners agreed to share parking revenue from riverfront garages to pay for a 1,000-space parking garage at the Oakley site.

That’s worth about $12 million to $15 million, Commissioner Chris Monzel said -- far short of $75 million.

Where would the county get money to pay for that garage? From the cash it makes on other parking garages. 

Right now the county brings in about $15 million every year from parking garages it built and manages, including garages at The Banks. Most of that money goes to pay down the debt on those garages, but some of that debt is paid off -- freeing up money for the county to use. 

The county could set aside roughly $1.1 to $1.2 million in parking garage cash every year to pay for an FC Cincinnati garage, Hamilton County Administrator Jeff Aluotto told WCPO. 

But any other infrastructure needs -- such as roads -- should be paid for with city money, the commissioners said Wednesday.

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley has offered a tax increment financing district, which would use any additional property taxes generated from new development around the stadium to help finance the construction. 

But it's unclear if Cranley is willing to offer funds to pay for new roads, utilities and any other infrastructure needs for the project. Also uncertain is how much that part of the project would actually cost. 

After coming out of the commissioners meeting in the afternoon, Portune said he had not had time to discuss the county's offer with Berding. Berding responded in a late-afternoon news release from FC Cincinnati and rejected the idea of paying for infrastructure.

"At this time, we have not had a single conversation with Hamilton County officials today, despite efforts. We heard their public statements today. The next step is to talk further with the County officials and Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley to see whether, after today’s initial offer to build a parking garage, we can get there on needed infrastructure. Our owners and FC Cincinnati will fund the stadium but will not be funding public infrastructure routinely covered by governments."

Berding repeated his position that Paul Brown Stadium is not an option with MLS and said any insistence to the contrary would doom their bid.

"As it relates to the need for a soccer specific stadium, the MLS sets its requirements in the best interest of the League. Respectively, they know the business of soccer and the League the best. The financial data that we transparently shared with the County proves that Paul Brown Stadium would not support an MLS team, and any suggestion to the contrary is wrong. Therefore, Paul Brown Stadium simply does not work and does not result in a winning bid. It means a losing bid."

READ Berding's full statement below.

Berding's statement made no threats about leaving Hamilton County, but he has indicated in the past that FC Cincinnati might go across the river and build its stadium on a shovel-ready site near Newport on the Levee if the county didn't play ball. The city has agreed to contribute but has not said publicly how or how much.

RELATED: Here’s what other cities will kick in for MLS stadiums.

Berding previously ruled out PBS and Nippert Stadium, noting that MLS is insisting that each new franchise own a soccer-specific stadium in order to control revenues and operations, even though some current MLS franchises play in NFL stadiums.

Portune repeated his stance that Paul Brown Stadium, which was built soccer-ready, would be a perfect location for an MLS team. Portune said he dismissed "naysayers" that suggest the Bengals might move if forced to share the stadium with FC Cincinnati. He said the Bengals have not made any noise about moving and the county would work to accommodate both teams.

A Bengals spokesperson said the matter of playing soccer at PBS is between FC Cincinnati and the county. "The Bengals have not been involved in any discussions, therefore we have no further comment,” the team's statement said.

 Portune insisted that commissioners had a responsibility to protect the county's assets, saying they "can't afford to have a half-billion stadium sitting empty on the riverfront"  if the Bengals decide to move.

Berding and a local delegation were in Houston Wednesday to discuss Cincinnati's bid to serve as a host city for World Cup 2026, with Paul Brown Stadium as the venue. 

Berding had called the county’s decision “a layup” made easy because FC Cincinnati didn't request a new tax. He had suggested using surplus hotel tax revenues to commit $2.8 million per years for 30 years.

Hamilton County collects a 6.5 percent tax on all hotel stays, Cincinnati collects 4 percent, and millions are put aside to help pay down debt on the Duke Energy Convention Center and Sharonville Convention Center. This year, the county and city are expected to collect more than $12 million in hotel tax.

MLS said it will announce on Dec. 14 which two cities it has chosen to join the league in 2020. Cincinnati, which exploded onto the soccer map in the last two years, had been considered one of the favorites along with Sacramento and Nashville of the 12 cities that submitted bids, according to soccer media. Two more expansion franchises for 2024 will be awarded at a later date.

FC Cincinnati will not build a stadium if it doesn’t win an MLS franchise, according to Berding. The county and city wouldn’t be out a dime and the club would continue to play at Nippert Stadium in the second-tier United Soccer League.

Berding confirmed Tuesday that the club would pay the total $200 million cost of building a 21,000-seat soccer stadium for an MLS team. He previously said the club would pay the $150 million MLS franchise fee.

Portune has been outspoken against using public money, recognizing widespread buyer’s remorse over the stadium deals with the Bengals and Reds that have cost more than $1 billion since the late 1990s and still squeeze county coffers.

Portune has also questioned why FC Cincinnati could not continue to play at Nippert Stadium, where it has regularly drawn crowds from 20,000 to 30,000 and more in an exciting atmosphere and newly-remodeled stadium on the University of Cincinnati campus.

FC Cincinnati had considered Newport and the West End as potential stadium locations,  but Oakley had several advantages that it made it the favorite. 

“Oakley has the advantage of having a single owner who is interested in selling the site, a large enough parcel to build a stadium and an adjoining exciting development,” Berding said last week.

"There's a couple different parcels there. I don't want to identify the very specific parcel, because there’s more than one prospective opportunity."

FC CIncinnati has been gearing up for the jump to Major League Soccer, announcing a huge conditional sponsorship deal with Mercy Health and a new team store at Liberty Center this week as well as overhauling its roster to meet the challenge of tougher competition on the field.

Winning an MLS franchise would be the culmination of a remarkable rise since FC Cincinnati joined the United Soccer League two years ago.  Pro soccer in Cincinnati has become a phenomenon as witnessed by the large, rabid crowds and fans young and old wearing the club's orange and blue colors.

Three years ago, who would have imagined Cincinnati being considered to be a World Cup host?

FC Cincinnati had greater average attendance last season (21,199) than 15 of the 22 MLS teams and almost double the second-highest team in the United Soccer League, Sacramento Republic FC.

RELATED: How much did FC Cincinnati owners donate to election campaigns?