City, county offer funds to help FC Cincinnati build MLS stadium

CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati scored two big wins Wednesday.

The team found out it is a finalist for a spot in Major League Soccer and local leaders promised to funnel millions of dollars into infrastructure around the professional stadium the team will build if it enters the sports league.

FC Cincinnati will head to New York next week to compete with just three other cities looking to land a spot in the MLS. Only two cities will be selected.

The team's management will do so with a plan in hand that includes a $200 million commitment in private cash to construct the stadium as well as a guarantee from city and county leaders to contribute roughly $52 million worth of parking, roads, sewer and other infrastructure for the project.

A months-long saga over just how much the city of Cincinnati and Hamilton County might kick in to help FC Cincinnati pay for an MLS stadium came to a quick close Wednesday.

The plan is much smaller than the original ask FC Cincinnati General Manager Jeff Berding spent months lobbying for.

Initially, the team request $100 million from the city and county.

At one point, the team asked the county to tap into its sales tax -- the same money used to fund Great American Ball Park and Paul Brown Stadium -- to fund the project, Hamilton County Commission President Todd Portune said Wednesday.

County leaders didn't budge.

Instead, they offered for the team to play at Paul Brown Stadium or money for a new parking garage if they built a stadium.

And on Wednesday, Hamilton County Commissioners unanimously signed off on the plan to pay for a 1,000-space parking garage.

Although the agreement does not put an exact price tag on the garage, county commissioners estimate the project will cost $15 million.

"It's time for the community now to come together -- city, county and FC -- to demonstrate to MLS that we want a major league franchise to be awarded to FC Cincinnati," Portune, a Democrat, said.

The garage will be paid for using money the county earns from other parking garages it owns.

The county also added a number of new requirements in exchange for the parking garage. The team must hold a public hearing on the stadium project, for example. And if revenues at the garage fall short, the county won't have to pay for upgrades or maintenance it can't afford.

Meanwhile, just a few hours later at a meeting down the street, Cincinnati City Council agreed to a $37 million infrastructure package for the team.

The decision came after council members were mum on the FC Cincinnati project for months -- even as Berding actively campaigned for a publicly financed deal for the stadium.

Just a week after Mayor John Cranley won re-election, he offered a plan to use city dollars to pay for stadium infrastructure.

Cranley admitted the timing was rushed, but the excitement of the city being named one of four finalists for the MLS franchise was exciting and a huge opportunity. He also admitted the soccer team had initially asked for more money from the city than the $37 million it approved Wednesday.

"I didn't choose the timing, but the timing is upon us," Cranley said, in a now-or-never speech as he urged council to vote for the stadium project. "Big cities have to be nimble -- we have to move quickly to get big things done."

His funding proposal pulls money from a variety of sources over a 30-year period to finance the project. Over the entire life of the package, it's expected to cost the city as much as $62 million, when fees and interested are taken into account.

The money will come from the following sources:

  • $7.25 million from an existing tax increment financing district in Oakley. The fund currently has $800,000 in it.
  • $2.5 million from the city's capital budget
  • $7.38 million from Blue Ash airport sale. This money is currently in a reserve fund.
  • Up to $1.5 million from hotel tax annually will be used to pay off a loan for the project. But that will cost up to $45 million in hotel tax over more than 30 years to pay down.
  • The city will also give FC Cincinnati a tax break for employees through a 50 percent job creation tax credit. It will receive a certain percentage of the city earnings taxes paid by employees back as the jobs are created.

The city and county contribution is still more than $20 million short of the infrastructure needs FC Cincinnati says will be required for opening the stadium.

Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, who voted against the deal, pressed Cranley on how the rest of the project would be paid.

"What's your sense of the 30 million dollar gap that exists right now?" Sittenfeld asked.

Cranley assured him that the city would not spend more than the $37 million it committed on Wednesday. Any extra funding would either come from the county or the soccer team, Cranley said.

Portune, the commission president, told WCPO Wednesday that the county has given all it can for the project.

The city council vote was not unanimous, with five of the nine members voting for the financing package.


Who voted for FC Cincinnati stadium project?
Kevin Flynn
David Mann
Amy Murray
Christopher Smitherman
Charlie Winburn

Who voted against it?
Chris Seelbach
P.G. Sittenfeld
Yvette Simpson

Councilman Wendell Young, who is recovering from heart surgery, was not present.

Hurdles still remain before FC Cincinnati will play in front of crowds at its new stadium.

Both city and county deals are contingent on the team actually earning the MLS bid.

Who will actually own the stadium also remains unclear. Berding has floated the idea of giving ownership of the stadium to the Greater Cincinnati Redevelopment Authority, a quasi-government agency.

Hamilton County Commissioner Chris Monzel, a Republican, and Denise Driehaus, a Democrat, both told WCPO Tuesday that they did not want the Redevelopment Authority to own the stadium, however.

Berding said Wednesday he wants to use the authority as a "financing tool" without exposing taxpayers to debt.

And the Cincinnati City Council that passed the stadium deal today will be vastly different next year, when three new members will join.

That new council, which will be sworn into office in January, will have to vote on basics for the stadium such as zoning changes.

The new council will also vote on any additional incentives or new money the city offers the soccer team, especially if FC Cincinnati moves their stadium site from Oakley to West End or another spot inside the city.

"The next council, if there's any movement on this, has a lot to do," Sittenfeld said.

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