EDITOR'S NOTE: The original version of this story said FC Cincinnati could ask for up to $250 million in public aid. That figure was incorrect.
CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati says it doesn’t want a tax increase, but it is asking local governments for millions in public aid to build a soccer-specific stadium so it can win one of the four Major League Soccer expansion franchises up for grabs.
FC Cincinnati President Jeff Berding went public with his club‘s pitch at a Thursday news conference, calling for “a little help” in creating a public-private partnership and saying that his club can’t win an MLS franchise in the competition with 11 other cities without its own soccer stadium.
Berding said the club is considering the West End, Oakley or Newport – where he said a stadium can be an economic driver and serve the community while fulfilling the MLS requirement that each team eventually control its own stadium.
He said he didn’t want to discuss specific sites. But judging from what's open in those areas, possibilities would be land near Taft High School in the West End, the former Milacron site in Oakley and the vacant land near Newport on the Levee designated a decade ago for the Ovation mixed-use development.
Berding said FC Cincinnati is committed to spending $250 million of its own money -- $150 million for MLS franchise fees and $100 million toward the stadium. Berding wouldn’t say how much public money the club wants, but he did say FC Cincinnati’s contribution would cover more than half of what’s needed to build a stadium. So it figures it could be asking for less than $100 million in public aid.
Berding and team ownership led by Carl Lindner III know what they’re up against by asking for public money in a town that has buyer’s remorse from using hundreds of millions of sales tax dollars to finance the Bengals and Reds stadiums. The mayor and county commissioners have already gone on record against any tax hike. A group called No More Stadium Taxes vowed this week to fight any taxes for a soccer stadium or new Downtown arena, since the owners of US Bank Arena have their hands out, too.
But FC Cincinnati has an advantage in that the community has gone soccer crazy for the second-tier United Soccer League team – as evidenced by record-breaking crowds in its first season at the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium. Berding is counting on that to score points with politicians and the public when he argues that a soccer stadium and MLS franchise would be “good for the city” by “supporting the renaissance” under way.
“We’ve been arguably the hottest soccer franchise in the United States for the past year,” Berding said. “We want to plant a flag in the ground that Cincinnati is a great soccer market.”
Berding wouldn’t say what forms of public aid FC Cincinnati has been asking for in conversations with local leaders, but he repeatedly made the point that the club was not asking for a “new tax” – a dirty word when it comes to financing pro sports teams nowadays.
"We want to do it in a new way than it has been done previously,” he said.
Instead, he alluded to private-public partnerships like the one that brought GE to The Banks and Medpace to Madisonville.
“There’s different kinds of help,” Berding said, mentioning infrastructure and parking. “We’re not asking for tax dollars to go for a stadium and for some that makes it an easier thought.”
Berding said FC Cincinnati wants to have a stadium financing plan in place this summer because MLS plans to award two franchises for 2020 by the end of this year.
He called the potential combination of FC Cincinnati money and public aid a “legacy investment” in the community that is guaranteed to bring dividends.
He said the success of pro soccer here is a sure thing now – even moreso than the success of the NFL when the Bengals started playing in 1968.
“The proven record of support is better than the NFL,” Berding said.
Berding said supporting pro soccer is an “opportunity to build on what we have.” He noted that the area’s nine Fortune 500 companies recruit around the world.
“We live in a global economy,” he said. “What better way to promote Cincinnati than through soccer?”
He said an MLS team would draw millennials to Cincinnati.
“It’s the one sport that connects them to the rest of the world,” Berding said.
In addition, a soccer stadium could be used for other events, he said. He mentioned college games, high school championships, international matches, the MLS All-Star Game and concerts.
“We’re not trying to build the FC Cincinnati soccer stadium, we’re building a Cincinnati asset,” he said.
Berding also suggested public investment would be a payback to the Lindner family for its largesse over the years.
“Carl Lindner and his family have brought thousands of jobs to the city for decades and never asked for help,” Berding said.