Pity poor Fred Nance. Last week, Cleveland's superlawyer was thrust into an awkward position when his clients in the Medical Mart saga, the county commissioners, abruptly announced that they'd chosen a site for the new convention center. Apparently Nance was as gobsmacked as everyone else when, after years of inactivity and creeping doubt, Cuyahoga County Commissioner Tim Hagan ignored Nance's advice to negotiate first for nearby land and announced that the next Project That Will Save Us will be built at the current convention center site.
But Nance knows his role in this town. He recovered quickly and fixed the blame for this chaos where it really belongs - on everyone who was not in Hagan's closed-door meetings. "It never ceases to amaze me what lengths people will go to in my hometown to find the deepest, darkest, most diabolical explanations," he whined to The Plain Dealer. "The cynicism just never stops. If a deal had been done with Forest City, then we would have had the conspiracy theorists saying [Forest City Chairman] Sam Miller owns this town and the process is corrupt. You can't win in this town." Ah, but as anyone who's lived here longer than a month knows, when you have the right connections you always win in this town. Maybe Miller's are losing their juice. He can commiserate with developer Scott Wolstein, whose recent sudden invitation to the county to consider his Flats site was promptly trampled under Hagan's rush to "get the damn project done." You could say Wolstein entered the game too late, but this game has always progressed more like kid-pitch baseball than the NBA. If there's a clock, it must be kept in the same office where Hagan held his closed-door, get-the-damn-project-done meetings.
The PD's Sunday analysis of Hagan's whiplash-inducing moves left out one interesting fact. As the Free Times reported in 2007, Medical Mart Properties Inc.'s president, Christopher Kennedy, "is the eighth son of Robert F. Kennedy, whom Hagan counted in a recent interview … as a mentor 'who had a big impact on my life personally.'" The PD has been reluctant to make this part of its news coverage, on the grounds that there's no indication of Hagan's "personally directly profiting" from the Medical Mart plan, to quote an '07 e-mail from the paper's editor to a reader. But who is served by setting the bar that high? Besides Hagan, I mean. The PD is considerably more strict with its staffers regarding even perceived conflicts of interest, and they aren't public officials, making decisions involving many millions in taxpayer dollars.
Oh, sorry, I forgot - when we assume the worst of our public officials, Fred Nance weeps.
"I'm reticent to answer about what motivates my colleagues," says Commission Peter Lawson Jones. "You'll have to ask them. But obviously there've been some thoughts on this prior to Thursday morning to which I was not privy. Frankly, [Wolstein] called me Thursday morning and said, 'I understand you're going to be voting on this today,' and I said, 'What?' I gave him assurance there was no discussion about making a decision that day. It's always been our intention, as well as Fred Nance's and the county staff's, to hear the presentation … from MMPI and the consultants, and to take their study under advisement, as well as the Greater Cleveland Partnership study, then commence negotiations simultaneously with the two sites - people who now own property at the current site and Forest City. But obviously, my colleagues had a different perspective."
And a different schedule.
But now comes Mayor Frank Jackson to say, in not so many words, wait a goddamn minute. Showing shocking disregard for the way things usually get done around here, Jackson is asking some basic questions. Like, how do we know that MMPI can build at the convention center site? Why is it suddenly $100 million cheaper to build there than behind Tower City, when previously we'd been told it would be about $50 million more? What does the city get out of this deal?
A couple of weeks ago I predicted that Jackson's sudden interest in the issue, after years of letting the commissioners and MMPI call the shots on this project in the heart of his city, would not amount to anything. I was at least partly wrong; apparently he's at least going to make Hagan sweat a little. I just hope there's no longer any truth to the rumors that when there's a cord snaking out of Sam Miller's ass, it's because the mayor of Cleveland is on the phone.
Additional reporting by Dan Harkins.