CINCINNATI - Where does soccer fit in Cincinnati?
That was the 200-million-dollar question for Jeff Berding Wednesday, and FC Cincinnati's president had a ready answer.
He doesn't know yet.
Berding made it clear that Oakley is and always has been Plan A for its new stadium. The West End is Plan B.
"But there's a lot of work to be done" before FC Cincinnati picks a site, he said.
Berding’s comments came after WCPO uncovered options for the soccer club to buy 60 lots near Taft High School, raising speculation that it might now be targeting the West End after months of promoting Oakley as its preferred site.
WCPO also discovered that the planned site of Citirama 2018 is included in those lots.
UPDATE: 2018 CiTiRAMA in the West End is on hold until FC Cincinnati makes a stadium decision, per Home Builders Association executive director. FC Cincy's land interests in that neighborhood are around the "Stowe Place" site.
Speaking to Bill Cunningham on WLW Radio, Berding explicity denied that the West End is the new frontrunner for FC Cincinnati’s $200 million stadium. He said the club won’t select a site until it first is awarded a Major League Soccer franchise and has a chance to participate in “full-scale community engagement” in the neighborhood.
Berding acknowledged that the process is “taking a bit more time than we probably understood,” but he said he is no less confident of winning an MLS bid in the next few weeks.
“Then we’re going to have a great big party with the great people of Cincinnati,” Berding said.
When Cunningham asked if he expected MLS to invite FC Cincinnati by the first week of March, Berding responded: “Boy, I sure hope it’s sooner than that.”
Berding said the club is still vetting the Oakley site – he revealed it is currently conducting an environment survey there - and keeping all its options open. That includes Newport.
“There is some uncertainty regarding the site. There’s no question,” he acknowledged, and referred to an independent traffic study commissioned by the city.
Berding responded to fears of some Oakley residents by saying, "I don't think anybody would think it's a good idea for us to put a 20,000-seat stadium in a neighborhood that causes gridlock for hours on weekends and Wednesday night.
“Obviously the results of a traffic study or community engagement could be that people don't think that Oakley is the right fit - and I sure as heck better have some other options,” Berding said.
Berding said FC Cincinnati might need “15 acres” for a stadium in the West End and denied he had signed any options there.
“We are talking to people. I want to stress that,” Berding said. “We’re not ready to sit down and negotiate. We haven’t even been award a franchise yet.”
When Cunningham asked what he likes about Oakley and the West End, Berding cited Oakley’s accessibility from I-75 and I-71 and said “there’s a lot of exciting opportunities” for economic growth in the West End.
“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.
“But right now I’m just trying to keep the West End on the table because the deal isn’t completely done yet with Oakley.”
City Council member Jeff Pastor, who grew up in the West End, called it “a great opportunity” for his old neighborhood. But not every resident agrees.
“I could have pulled my hair out. I could have ran down there screaming in the middle of Taft,” Beverly Carter said when she heard FC Cincinnati might buy up property.
Carter, a 1967 Taft graduate, fears losing Stargel Stadium, which is adjacent to the high school. The stadium is named after legendary former Taft teacher and coach Willard R. Stargel, who overcame racism on the field and off. Stargel, a three-sport star at Woodward, also coached at Walnut Hills and was one of the original inductees in the Cincinnati Public Schools Athletic Hall of Fame.
Carter remembers the pride she felt when Stargel Stadium opened. It was Taft's first true home field.
“We had to go to other big schools to have our football games,” she remembered. “I was excited about it because it was someone that came out of Taft. It just kept Taft close-knit."
Now she fears losing that - the name, the history, the sense of community.
Another fear is that some people will lose their homes.
“For the low-income and affordable housing residents, am I going to be displaced?” said Keith Blake, president of the West End Community Council. “That’s the fine balance you have to deal with. But I don’t think it’s at that point yet.”