Brook Park Mayor Tom Coyne stood outside the judge's office, hands in his pockets. "I'm waiting to have a baby," he said, admitting his nervousness with a charming Irish smile.
A court worker handed him the judge's decision. As TV camera lights shined on his face, Coyne turned to the last page.
At first, he was so nervous, he read it wrong: "We just owned the I-X Center," he said awkwardly.
For a confused moment, Coyne thought his years-long dream had come true, that he'd snatched ownership of the enormous convention center away from Cleveland -- thwarting Cleveland Mayor Mike White's plans to tear it down for a new airport runway and freeing Brook Park to use the huge, lonely I-X to lure hotels and entertainment halls to its last undeveloped land.
Then Coyne read the judge's key sentence out loud and saw that the plans he's nurtured may end up stillborn. "We lost," Coyne said. He gruffly told reporters he'd have a statement soon, then ducked into the courtroom to huddle with lawyers.
It was a sudden reversal of fortune. This summer, a cocky Coyne predicted Brook Park would seize the I-X Center by eminent domain and throw a victory party inside. A Plain Dealer editorial declared that "only White and his lawyers think Cleveland can win" the I-X case. White's city council critics were calling on him to compromise with Coyne rather than risk defeat.
Instead, White is working from a new position of strength. At his press conference following the decision, as he talked about his plans for Hopkins Airport, he was all smiles and conciliation. "Our job is to convince the people of Brook Park that we do not want to harm them nor hurt them," he said.
White may owe his victory to the shrewd decision, a year ago, to get a new judge assigned to the case.
Originally, Probate Judge John Corrigan was going to hear Brook Park's bid to seize the I-X. That didn't bode well for Cleveland, since Corrigan allowed Brook Park to take a plot of land Cleveland owned near the airport five years ago. But last fall, Cleveland charged that Corrigan was biased in favor of Brook Park, and the angry judge recused himself.
Cleveland insisted that Hopkins needs the I-X property to survive, and the argument made an impression on the county's other probate judge, John Donnelly, who spent several pages of his opinion describing the airport's capacity problems and expansion plans. Donnelly ruled that it's "reasonably foreseeable" that Hopkins will expand onto the I-X property in the 2010s. In the 1995 case, Corrigan dismissed Cleveland's long-term expansion plans as speculative.
If Cleveland had lost, White would have been in trouble. The city could have lost tens of millions of dollars when a jury decided how much Brook Park would pay Cleveland for the I-X Center. (Brook Park had argued that Cleveland overpaid for the I-X last year.) White's council enemies were ready to pounce if the mayor's stubbornness led to big financial losses. White could have appealed a negative ruling, but if that failed, he would have had to approach Brook Park, hat in hand, to negotiate a future runway's location on the suburb's tough terms -- or face the ugly prospect of building a new airport somewhere else.
Instead, White is closer to his long-cherished goal of transforming Hopkins from a third-rate airport into a modern one. Cleveland finally has federal approval to build a new runway near NASA and will race to open it before Hopkins reaches capacity. But with air travel expected to grow rapidly, White says Cleveland will eventually need another runway on the I-X land to stay competitive.
Coyne plans to appeal, and he warns that Brook Park can use its zoning authority to block expansion. But when the two cities face off again, at a peace summit or in court, it's Mike White who'll have the advantage.
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