CINCINNATI – Is this the moment of truth for FC Cincinnati?
What will the soccer club reveal about its stadium plans in the West End at two public meetings this week?
Those meetings could also answer these questions:
Who speaks for West End residents in engagement with the soccer club?
Will last-ditch attempts by club president Jeff Berding to win over residents be effective in countering the loud voices of politicians and activists who have been speaking out against them?
School board members, West End residents, FC Cincinnati fans and the city at large expect to see maps, renderings and charts detailing the soccer club’s plans at a school board meeting Monday night and a West End Community Council meeting Tuesday night.
(Follow reporter Amanda Seitz on Twitter for live updates from both meetings)
Developments over the weekend suggest Berding might be making headway in engaging West End residents – an effort he had personally avoided except to recently hire former Mayor Mark Mallory for outreach in Mallory's neighborhood. Berding even appealed Sunday night to supporters to come to Monday night's meeting.
— FC Cincinnati (@fccincinnati) February 12, 2018
On Friday night, the West End Community Council executive board told politicians and activists to butt out and let the council and the community speak for itself.
President Keith A. Blake released a statement that read, in part:
"We appreciate the interest and desires of organizations and concerned citizens in providing input to the potential FCC stadium and its impact. We respectfully request that West End Community Council and West End Community be allowed to represent the views and desires of our residents.”
The WECC's statement came one day after City Council member Wendell Young, State Sen. Cecil Thomas, former mayor Dwight Tillery and others held a news conference to condemn FC Cincinnati’s interest in the West End and ask residents to come to this week’s meetings and “Say No.”
On Saturday, Berding walked through the West End, stopping at homes to make his pitch to residents while he and others left fliers on doorknobs. The flier listed “opportunities for jobs, small business development and affordable housing” as benefits from the $200 million stadium it plans to build if it wins a Major League Soccer expansion franchise.
Having a terrific day walking door to door in the West End, talking to hundreds of residents about @fccincinnati plans to potentially bring an MLS stadium there. Listened to & answered residents. Thanks to the community leaders who are joining me. pic.twitter.com/a5w5XI7OGF
— Jeff Berding (@JeffBerding) February 10, 2018
It wasn't completely a walk in the park, though. Berding complained that opponents removed the soccer club’s fliers and put up their own fliers designed as an eviction notice.
Learned opponents of @fccincinnati stadium are falsely scaring residents w claims FCC plans to take their home. PATENTLY UNTRUE - & opponents admitted during our walk they know these fear tactics are false. When confronted, said “fear works”. They also took our flyers off doors. pic.twitter.com/5aYWxBmy8B
— Jeff Berding (@JeffBerding) February 10, 2018
Kelli Prather, who opposes a soccer stadium in the West End, disputed Berding’s claim that her group was spreading fear or removing FC Cincinnati fliers.
Sir, no one present during our conversation removed your flyers. I respectfully ask that you only make true statements regarding our encounter. Lastly we are not anti-FCC we are pro-West End. FCC has options in Cincinnati while many of the residents don't have housing options.
— Kelli Prather (@KelliForCincy) February 11, 2018
Prather acknowledged the “eviction notice” fliers were copied from a group opposing a similar MLS stadium effort in Miami. David Beckham’s group, awarded an MLS franchise this month, wants to build in Overtown, a black neighborhood, and community organizers are trying to rally residents against it.
Prather and some other stadium opponents and residents are distrustful based on West End history. Many residents were driven away from the mostly black neighborhood when assisted and affordable housing was torn down for Interstate 75 and other projects. Promises to replace the housing were not kept, they say.
To this day, some opponents call it “urban removal, not urban renewal” and claim the bigger issue with FC Cincinnati is not Stargel Stadium but gentrification.
Tension and fear have been building in the West End since WCPO reported in January that FC Cincinnati had taken options on more than 60 vacant lots in that neighborhood. The day before, Berding reached out to the school board president to discuss a partnership in the West End.
Until now, Berding has not revealed stadium site options there. But the school board has demanded transparency going forward and Berding has promised to provide it.
In a letter to Berding Feb. 2, school board President Carolyn Jones raised concerns about how a soccer stadium would impact Taft High School and its athletic field, Stargel Stadium, as well as nearby Hays-Porter Elementary.
“And taxpayers throughout the CPS community have questions about whether FC Cincinnati is committed to making CPS whole if FCC seeks a real estate tax abatement in connection with the new stadium,” Jones wrote.
Berding first said the stadium would not "touch the high school building,” but later he acknowledged the some configurations would require bulldozing Stargel Stadium, a community landmark, next to the school.
That brought protests from Stargel’s son, Jason Stargel, who told WCPO it would be a “travesty” to tear down the stadium named after his father.
Last week, Berding said FC Cincinnati would build a “new, better Stargel” if the soccer club removed it.
Berding told WCPO last month that vacant housing lots would not be used for a stadium and no one would be displaced.
“Let me stress this: We’re not taking anyone’s homes. We’re going to increase home ownership,” Berding said on the Sunday morning show “This Week In Cincinnati.”
“We’re going to increase the number of people living in a neighborhood. The notion that we’re somehow going to try to buy people’s homes out, move people out of the neighborhood, that’s just false. That’s just made up.”
Berding has repeatedly said that FC CIncinnati won't build a stadium where the community rejects it. He said Oakley and Newport, Kentucky, are other locations under consideration.
Berding said all three sites are "winning sites" and he doesn't favor one over the others, but he sounded most enthusiastic about the West End during an interview with WLW's Bill Cunningham last month.
When Cunningham asked what he likes about the West End, Berding said “there’s a lot of exciting opportunities” for economic growth.
“With all the energy that’s occurred in Over-the-Rhine, the ability to take that west into the West End and bring probably $300 million in investment, ultimately you start connecting from Over-the-Rhine to Music Hall all the way to Union Terminal and the Museum Center and invest those dollars in housing, jobs and economic opportunity, transportation, and all of a sudden it becomes a win-win for the community,” Berding said.
Berding says a site won't be chosen until MLS awards the franchise. Berding says he expects MLS's decision by the end of the month.