With City Council’s efforts to suppress a referendum on the Q deal having failed, Dan Gilbert was finally faced with the prospect of a public vote on the proposed $100-million-plus subsidy to pay for discretionary renovations to Quicken Loans Arena. Rather than subject this project to scrutiny at the ballot, Gilbert decided to pick up his ball and go home.
Yesterday, Gilbert announced his “cancellation of [the Cavaliers’] participation in The Q Transformation Project” in a lengthy press release
touting various hypothetical benefits of the renovations and blaming the sponsors of the referendum petition for killing the project. Leading elected officials—including Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, Council President Kevin Kelley, Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish, and U.S. Congresswoman Marcia Fudge—dutifully followed up
with their own statements variously lamenting the death of the project and issuing their own accusations against the petition sponsors. Notably missing from these statements was any criticism of Gilbert himself—a man with virtually limitless personal resources—for taking the position that these renovations won’t happen at all if he can’t get a public handout to pay for them.
The whole thing has made for a stunning display of contempt for the democratic process and the voting public, including the 20,000+ Clevelanders who signed the referendum petition. If this was really such a good deal for the public—contrary to the virtually unanimous opinion of academics who have studied stadium subsidies—why couldn’t these leaders make the case to the public and let them vote on it? If Gilbert really couldn’t afford to pay for this project without a public subsidy, why couldn’t he be transparent with his financial statements to prove to voters that this is the case? Why cast aspersions on people for merely suggesting there are better uses for public funds than this—such as to address the needs of Cleveland’s distressed neighborhoods and most vulnerable residents—and for insisting that, at very least, the public should get to decide at the ballot as Ohio's Constitution guarantees?
The message from Gilbert is that whatever he believed the benefits of the Q renovations to be, they weren’t worth even trying to test at the ballot, or negotiate over with the petition’s sponsors. Nor were they worth paying for himself, or with the help of the deal’s many supporters in Cleveland’s corporate community. Whatever the supposed benefits of these renovations, they weren’t important enough to Gilbert and friends as their commitment to Hunger Games
economics and their continued ability to hold the public hostage for subsidies that they apparently don’t need.
The message from the elected officials is similarly clear and bleak: They know better than the public, and they don’t see it as their job to let the public in on what they know. And why would they in a system where it’s effectively impossible for a politician to get elected without support from billionaires?
The death of this deal is, whatever else, a much-needed reason for hope that this broken system can be reformed. The death of this deal is, whatever else, a win for the public against public officials who tried to deny the public a vote. Whatever one’s opinion on the Q deal, everyone should be able to appreciate that.
And everyone should be able to understand that if Gilbert really had the public’s best interests at heart, he would have found a way to make the project happen in a way that would have been acceptable to voters.
Peter Pattakos is an attorney who represents the Q-deal petitioners and has legally represented Scene.