CINCINNATI – Jeff Berding says he skipped a trip to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on Sunday to watch his soccer club play. With the fate of FC Cincinnati’s bid for a Major League Soccer franchise hanging in the balance, it’s a good thing he did.
Instead, the FC Cincinnati president and general manager said he met with West End community leaders to put the finishing touches on a Community Benefits Agreement that appeared to clear the last hurdle in the way of a stadium deal that's going to a City Council vote on Monday.
Berding said he’s confident that council member Jeff Pastor, who threatened to derail the deal – and possibly the club’s MLS hopes – is now on board and that the deal is a go. With four of nine council members declaring themselves “No” votes, FC Cincinnati needed Pastor’s vote to get approval.
“We’ve had great leadership at City Hall. I expect that tomorrow the ordinances that provide the public infrastructure to support our privately funded stadium will be approved,” Berding said Sunday after three days of last-ditch meetings in hopes of sealing the deal.
It calls for the city to provide $34 million for site support for the 21,000-seat stadium.
“I’ve spoken with all the council members who we expect to vote yes," Berding said. "On Friday, we sat down for several hours with the West End Community Council Executive Board to work on a Community Benefits Agreement, which was a condition for Councilman Pastor. Council member Pastor joined our meeting to help urge us to work together and to reach the agreement. I think we’re in a good spot.”
Berding said he worked through the weekend to meet Pastor’s demand to put the CBA in writing in time for council to review it before it votes at a 4 p.m. special session. Pastor, who grew up in the West End and had spoken in favor of putting the stadium there, had tweeted Friday that he was “not bluffing” about opposing the deal if his demand wasn't met.
I am supportive of a CBA with the West End Community Council for a @fccincinnati deal. I am hopeful one can be signed and it will be a win-win. I am not bluffing. This will be my profile in courage. I am not afraid. To those who think I am bluffing I am not.
WCPO reached out to Pastor Sunday, but the council member did not respond.
Berding didn't understate the importance of Monday’s vote. He said there is “no fallback,” no longer any option for another stadium site in Oakley or Newport, or using Nippert Stadium or Paul Brown Stadium.
“Tomorrow is the shot for people who want to have Cincinnati earn a third major league sports franchise. Tomorrow is the vote. There’s no Plan B. Tomorrow is the vote,” Berding said.
If Pastor votes “Yes,” that means Vice Mayor Chris Smitherman would be the deciding vote to break the 4-4 tie.
Smitherman has been publicly silent on the issue, but he voted last November for the city to put up $37 million for infrastructure for a proposed stadium in Oakley. That’s no guarantee that Smitherman will vote “Yes” for the West End stadium, which has met strong opposition from some residents and activists and has the potential for political pushback.
But Smitherman has also been an ally of Mayor John Cranley, who supports the deal. WCPO tried to call Smitherman Sunday but he did not answer and his mailbox was full.
Council members Tamaya Dennard, Chris Seelbach, Wendell Young and Jeff Landsman have declared themselves “No” votes. P.G. Sittenfeld and David Mann, who brokered the deal between the soccer club and the city, and Amy Murray are self-proclaimed “Yes” votes.
After a frustrating site search that dragged on for months, City Council approval would essentially clear the way for MLS to vote at a Tuesday meeting in Los Angeles to give FC Cincinnati a franchise. Berding didn’t say MLS owners would vote then, but he didn’t say they wouldn’t.
“I know that at the Major League owners meeting on Tuesday they’ll be discussing Cincinnati and our expansion bid. What will come out of it, we’ll all have to wait and see,” Berding said.
In a best-case scenario for FC Cincinnati, the soccer club could be hosting MLS Commissioner Don Garber for a "Welcome-to-MLS“ celebration by the end of this week. MLS has been considering FC Cincinnati, Detroit and Sacramento for its next expansion franchise.
With the Cincinnati school board having agreed to a land swap with the soccer club last week, the only other unfinished business comes up Wednesday when the Greater Cincinnati Redevelopment Authority (formerly known as the port authority) is scheduled to discuss the soccer club’s request that it own the stadium.
Under the city’s plan, the soccer club would privately fund the $200 million stadium, but the team would lease the stadium from the Redevelopment Authority – a public entity that the city and county collectively control – who would ultimately own it. If that happens, FC Cincinnati is likely to be exempt from paying millions in taxes over the years, including sales tax for building materials and some property taxes.
Berding declined to show a copy of the finished CBA to WCPO, but the proposed city ordinance says the CBA would be a 30-year promise with community stakeholders for the soccer club to:
Pay $3 at least million (no less than $100,000 annually) to West End community groups;
“Transfer to a third-party private developer purchase options that the Club holds on 60 parcels of land currently owned by the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority, to facilitate the creation of affordable housing in the West End neighborhood;”
“Address quality of life issues including, without limitation, light and noise pollution, litter, traffic and safety.”
“I was meeting with people yesterday and today. I didn’t travel with the team to Bethlehem in order to give ourselves every opportunity to make progress on the Community Benefits Agreement. I spent about an hour today meeting with some of the leaders in Over-The-Rhine," Berding said.
“We want this to be a win-win. No private development in the city has ever been asked to do a Community Benefits Agreement before. This is a first that they’re requiring (a CBA). We want to be good neighbors. We think we can be a catalyst for improving the neighborhoods down in the area. We’ll use our $200-plus million privately funded stadium to have jobs, and economic opportunity for an area that needs it."
Berding called FC Cincinnati’s commitment to pay for the stadium and the $150 million franchise fee “the best stadium deal maybe in the country.
“There’s no reason to say no to this deal,” Berding said. “We have the support of the West End Community Council. We have support of over 65% of the people that live in the West End have filled out the surveys, door to door, and phone calls that they want this to happen.
“Cincinnati Public Schools has voted to make this happen. This is an enormous economic opportunity to put our city on the map in a global way. That’s what leaders do. They take advantage of these opportunities. This is the best stadium deal maybe in the history of our country. Privately funded 100-percent. City Council should vote yes."
Dennard tweeted Friday why she opposes the deal.
Just so we’re clear, I do not support the deal for FC Cincinnati as proposed by Councilmember Sittenfeld.
$100,000 to be shared amongst athletic and youth-centered organizations AND Mortar to develop businesses is nothing. That’s not Equity. They under resource Black people and economically disadvantaged communities ALL the time and then look confused when the needles don’t move.