There's a plaque hanging in an Eastlake stadium with a portrait of Mayor Dan DiLiberto and the inscription "The house that Dan built."
The stadium is a monument today. It could be a political tombstone tomorrow.
In the late 1990s, when DiLiberto launched his drive to bring minor league baseball to this small eastern suburb, he argued that it would be the centerpiece of a revitalized economy. Instead of a business district anchored by tanning parlors and gun shops, he envisioned a constellation of stores and eateries similar to those surrounding Jacobs Field -- with a new $22 million stadium, paid for by the city, providing the gravitational pull.
But today, just weeks after the yet-to-be-named home of the Lake County Captains opened, there are questions about whether it came at the expense of city jobs and public services -- and whether it may soon become an inescapable noose around Eastlake's finances.
In early April -- just a week before the privately owned Captains' inaugural homestand -- the city announced a first round of layoffs. DiLiberto has also asked remaining workers to give back a 3.5 percent pay increase they received this year. He can't guarantee there won't be a second round of layoffs or that raises will resume next year.
The mayor has also pushed through increases in the city's income tax and license-plate fees. But the worst may be yet to come.
While opening day on April 10 was a sellout at the 7,300-seat stadium, the place was already less than half full by April 14. If fans don't come, the city will be stuck with covering what the Captains cannot, leaving Eastlake with a $22 million monument to debt.
DiLiberto says there's no correlation between the stadium and the city's financial woes. Stadium revenues will pay for the ballpark, he argues; a shrinking income tax base is to blame for the city's troubles. And he remains confident that the Captains will ignite the suburb's economy.
Yet minor league baseball is a risky proposition -- even for towns in robust health. Just four weeks into the season, there are already signs that Eastlake could be in for a multiyear losing streak.
Everything will be fine, as long as people flock to games. When the city began to solicit a team, it conducted a study determining that it would take 240,000 fans -- an average of more than 3,400 per game -- for a team to be profitable. (The Captains won't disclose their break-even point.)
But the city's estimates were ambitious from the start. The 16-team South Atlantic League, home to clubs from Hagerstown, Maryland, to Rome, Georgia, averages just 2,468 fans per game. Lakewood, New Jersey, leads the league with 5,230 a game. It should be noted, however, that the Columbus, Georgia team averages a mere 249, a testament to the precarious draw of A-level baseball.
With the Captains' attendance already slumping toward the break-even point, there is no guarantee that the team will reach profitability. Nor will its quest be helped by the parent-club Indians, whose rebuilding process has dimmed the popularity of baseball in Northeast Ohio.
The Captains prefer to take an optimistic approach. "We're very pleased with the initial turnout," insists spokesman David Wilson. He blames bad weather for the sparse crowds and is certain that once summer arrives and school lets out, the stadium will be buzzing.
Still, on one recent evening with the temperature hovering in the upper 70s, there were far more empty seats than bodies. The crowd was so quiet, one could hear the footsteps of players on the field.
Such scenes make optimism difficult. And if the fans don't come, all hell breaks loose.
Eastlake is counting on Captains' rent payments -- said to be about $500,000 annually -- to pay back the $5.6 million in bonds used to purchase the land on which the stadium was built. Low attendance would also hurt city revenue from the stadium parking lot, as well as its percentage of each ticket sold.
If the Captains encounter financial trouble, the city does have recourse, but it's not very pretty. "We can evict them, just like any landlord, and we would go out and try to find a different team," says Tom Chema, president of Gateway Consultants, who helped negotiate the contract. But he admits that, if the Captains sink, others would be leery of trying their luck in the same spot. And an empty stadium generates almost no revenue, leaving the city with 20 years of debt and no means to repay it.
Other funding has already proved elusive.
The state agreed to pay $2.6 million, but it's only kicked in $850,000 so far. The feds were supposed to chip in $4 million, but that money is entangled in the bureaucracy.
Moreover, Eastlake has yet to find a company willing to pay its $5 million asking price for naming rights to the stadium. "It's not the price tag," Chema insists. "It's the general economic climate and convincing the right partner to do the deal."
It may actually be both. While the stadium project broke ground in a thriving economy, it opened in the midst of a recession. And if other naming deals are any indication, Eastlake could be shooting too high.
The Lugnuts of Lansing, Michigan, are an A-level team just like the Captains, but they received only $1.5 million for stadium naming rights, to be paid over 10 years, according to media reports. A Kannapolis, North Carolina team in the same league as the Captains attracted just $300,000 over 15 years, according to Street & Smith Sports Business Journal.
Then there's the minor league team in Fresno, California, which is holding out for a bigger payday. It's now in its second year without a corporate logo on its stadium. As Eastlake's park ages, so does its novelty -- and its value as a corporate symbol.
Including land purchases, the stadium cost approximately $22 million. Almost all of it was borrowed. That's a lot of debt for a suburb that can barely afford to pay its workers and projects revenues of just $12.65 million this year.
Having already endured a first round of layoffs and knowing that more are on the way, some in Eastlake have begun to wonder whether the city's fiscal woes are tied to a slumping economy -- or whether they're the looming specter of a bad stadium deal.
Chema says the stadium isn't being paid for through Eastlake's general fund. Hence, he says, it will play no role in layoffs, past or future.
Doug Drake, secretary/treasurer of the Eastlake firefighters' union, says DiLiberto told him the same, but Drake remains skeptical. While every city is feeling pinched, Eastlake is getting squeezed hard.
Drake says the mayor has told him that when firefighters retire -- as many as six may be gone by December -- the city will not replace them. DiLiberto has also told him that more firefighters may be laid off.
None of which bodes well for safety. Drake predicts that, by year's end, the fire department will be operating with just eight people per shift -- fewer than it had in 1981, when there were only half as many calls. "People are going to get hurt, and fires are not going to get put out," he says. (DiLiberto, said to be vacationing in Florida, could not be reached for comment.)
It's the same story over at the police department, where retiring officers won't be replaced, says officer Michael Werner, a union negotiator. Rank and file can't help but suspect that mounting stadium debts are behind the pay cuts and layoffs.
"That's in the back of everybody's minds," says Werner, "but it hasn't been proven."
Workers in the service and recreation departments believe they have proof. They've been told that they'll be the first to be hit in the next round of layoffs. They're furious. After all, for the last year, they've been ordered away from their usual duties to assist at the stadium, spreading topsoil and laying sod, installing sewer pipes, and surfacing parking lots.
At the same time, workers say, they were prohibited from fully repairing cracked city streets. Instead, they were told to apply a thin layer of asphalt, ensuring that they'll be back again next year to make the same repair. "They'll pave over the top of these spots, so it looks nice," says one employee, "but it won't last."
Now that the stadium is finished, workers feel they're being viewed as expendable.
"Mood?" sighs Tom Pesosky, the departments' union chief. "It's been better."
But if the city is covertly shifting public resources to the stadium, officials aren't willing to talk about it. In many respects, DiLiberto is Eastlake government. While he's away, everyone else is reluctant to speak.
Debate between mayor and council is almost unheard-of. Nearly every vote is unanimous, including those relating to the stadium. Former Councilman Stephen Komarjanski offered the lone dissent, but when he dared to run against DiLiberto in 2001, he was trounced.
Nor will remaining members talk about DiLiberto's grand plan to revitalize the city. No one from city council would discuss stadium finances with Scene -- save for Bruno Razov, who claimed to know nothing about the deal. Service Director Bill Phillipps, Recreation Director Mike Hutchinson, and Finance Director Jack Masterson also refused to talk.
If the stadium deal is souring, it seems likely that Eastlake will do its suffering quietly. For better or worse, it's stuck with the house that Dan built.
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