CINCINNATI — How much will Hamilton County spend to buy a riverfront concrete facility to provide new parking and a possible indoor practice facility for the Cincinnati Bengals?
That’s exactly what Mayor John Cranley is demanding to know.
In a letter sent to Cincinnati City Council and Hamilton County Commissioners late Thursday, Cranley asked to see a full, unredacted copy of the county’s purchase contract with Hilltop Basic Resources, including all public expenses that will be spent in the deal.
“We are told that this deal makes the county’s stadium deal better. But the public won’t know if that is true until it sees the amount of public money that will be spent to move Hilltop,” Cranley wrote.
Cranley sent the letter hours after WCPO reported that the county will likely spend $131,000 for Bengals fan parking this season at Hilltop.
WATCH I-Team reporter Paula Christian explain deal:
His letter underscores the deep political divisions between the city and the county, raising the question of whether a deal can be forged in time for construction to begin on a concert venue at The Banks this fall.
Hilltop is at the center of a political dispute involving city and county leaders, the Bengals, The Banks and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
County officials pledged to buy Hilltop’s 15 acres adjacent to Paul Brown Stadium as part of a new lease signed with the Bengals in November — but only if Hilltop can find a new home.
The latest plans have Hilltop splitting its operations between new homes in Lower Price Hill and Queensgate, on portions of city-owned land leased to Cincinnati Bulk Terminals.
“Hilltop and the county are trying to move Hilltop to land that is owned in part by the city. To accomplish this, existing businesses will have to relocate or shutdown and lots of public money will be spent to do so,” Cranley wrote.
The deal would allow the Bengals to give up parking space adjacent to the stadium so the CSO’s music management firm, MEMI, could build a long-awaited concert venue on the space.
Timing is crucial because PromoWest, which lost out on the bid to build at The Banks, and parent company AEG Presents broke ground last month on a competing $40 million concert venue directly across the river in Newport.
Cranley’s two-page letter demands a list of information ahead of the Sept. 3 public hearing, including Hilltop’s new building renderings, a map of how it will transport gravel and concrete, an exact location and design for its asphalt plant and an environmental report on the Lower Price Hill land Hilltop has offered to give to the city in exchange for a lease on other city-owned property.
But Cranley’s most controversial demand is for the county’s purchase contract with Hilltop.
“Considering how much money the city, the county and other parties may need to spend to move forward with this transaction, I believe it is vital to the public interest and to the city’s consideration of any proposed transaction to know how much money the public is spending on this purchase of Hilltop’s existing site,” Cranley wrote.
Construction on the concert venue is set to begin in October as long as the Hilltop deal is signed first.
The concert venue was originally scheduled to open in the spring of 2020, but city and county leaders were fighting over who should pay for the $29 million public parking garage.
Cranley has long been opposed MEMI’s construction of a concert venue at The Banks on parking Lot D near the stadium.
He originally wanted Columbus-based PromoWest to win the bid for the venue. He also wants the concert venue built on a lot further away from the stadium, where county leaders want a 15-story office tower built instead.
“The public has a right to know and the city should not commit to spend any money or transfer any land until the facts are on the table. Sunshine makes better public policy than secrecy," Cranley wrote.
Some City Council members are considering legislation that would give away city-owned riverfront property in exchange for the Lower Price Hill site, Cranley wrote.
If that happens, he wants an appraisal of both properties, and he wants the county or Hilltop to agree to pay for and conduct remediation so the Lower Price Hill land can be converted into a park.
Hilltop wanted to put a barge unloading facility on land it owns in Lower Price Hill, on the west side of Mill Creek, and spread out the remainder of its operation over two sites in Queensgate.
Some residents were concerned it would interfere with plans for the future Price Landing Park. In order to appease residents, Hilltop is now looking to unload its barges on the east side of Mill Creek, on land the city owns but leases to Cincinnati Bulk Terminals.
Although Lower Price Hill residents are on board with the revised plan, negotiations between Hilltop and the city seem to be stalled.
“I would love to see these negotiations go quicker, but we’re trying to accommodate a lot of different interests between the Bengals, the city and county, and the communities,” said Hilltop president Kevin Sheehan. “We’re moving at pace, quite honestly, that is dictated more by others than by us.”
As much as Hilltop wants to see a concert venue at The Banks, if a deal can’t be worked out, Sheehan said the company would stay at its current 15-acre site across the street from the stadium.