Whatever you think about whether a new soccer stadium should be built, where it should go, or who should pay how much for it, one thing is certain – the way it’s been handled has been insulting to the public.
Whether it leaves a lingering bad taste or not remains to be seen. But the whole affair has been an affront to the very people who are being counted on to support major league soccer here and whose tax dollars will be used to help finance this venture.
That’s too bad. FC Cincinnati has been a blast of sports euphoria and an outsized success in its current venue, the friendly confines of UC’s Nippert Stadium. Will that carry over if the club gets a Major League Soccer franchise and builds a brand spanking new stadium?
We hope so.
But the last few weeks have left us with a case of Stadium Syndrome, and as we know, that can be hard to shake.
The signs of it started back in the summer, when word got out that three potential sites were in the running – two in Cincinnati and one across the river in Newport. Nothing like whipsawing government officials and the people they represent to bring back old feelings of cross-state resentment, right?
It brought back bad memories of the mid-90s and the Bengals stadium controversy. FC Cincinnati General Manager Jeff Berding, who is leading the charge on the soccer stadium, was leading the stadium charge then too.
This time, the taxpayers were kept in the dark about the preferred site and the financing plans until after the election. Days after Cincinnatians had voted for a mayor and a city council, Mayor John Cranley announced his plan to finance the stadium’s infrastructure.
Where was the election debate?
During the election, there was virtually zero discussion of the stadium. It was not mentioned by any candidates as one of the city’s top priorities.
The people who live in Oakley, the preferred site for the stadium, have been nearly ignored. Although many supported the concept of a stadium in their community, at the eleventh hour key leaders waved their hands saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute! We have other things we need besides a stadium!’
Was enough thought given to how a major league stadium and all the traffic that will bring could change that lovely neighborhood? There certainly was not enough discussion.
Wait until the last minute
The final insult came when City Council’s finance committee met Monday to vote on the city’s financing package. The whole thing felt like a shakedown.
When council members complained about voting on the complex package under deadline pressure, Cranley blamed Major League Soccer for the time crunch.
This has been on the radar since at least January. But no one wanted to talk about it before the election. If the candidates, including Cranley, would have had the guts to tackle this before election day, there wouldn’t have been a crunch. But that might have cost candidate’s votes. So no discussion of the stadium took place until shortly after Election Day, about a month before the expected Dec. 14 MLS announcement on league expansion.
When council members pointed out a financing gap of at least $20 million, Berding essentially said, “We’ll figure it out.”
Cranley called the question “nitpicking”: "I believe as community we should be more focused on winning the bid than nitpicking every little piece of this when so much is at stake," he said.
Nitpicking? The council members were doing their jobs, trying to protect millions of dollars in taxpayer money and understand the possible impact to a neighborhood where 10,000 people live.
Council member P.G. Sittenfeld had to ask repeatedly what the committee was being asked to vote on. If a council member can’t figure out something that basic, how is the public expected to grasp the details and provide feedback?
Then Cranley, who is taking the lead in City Hall on this, left the meeting well before it was over. We would hope that proposing to spend $37 million in taxpayer money would be worth sticking around for.
Cranley predicted that within one year the stadium deal will be viewed as a “historic no-brainer.” We hope that’s true.
More transparency needed
But the whole drama has lacked transparency from the beginning. Without transparency, there’s no trust. And without trust, the mayor, the club management, owners and anyone asking for the public’s help, have a big problem.
This drama is far from over. At Monday’s meeting, several people suggested that Oakley may not be the site after all, which raises the question: Where might the stadium land? And how will the $20 million gap be bridged? And how might the public be involved in future discussions?
This isn’t nitpicking, these are details that matter. And Cranley, Berding and the club’s owners owe the public a lot more openness and transparency.
Essentially, Berding and Cranley urged council and the public to “trust us.” It would be a lot easier to trust them if this project didn’t feel like it was being forced on us.