Lee Weingart, the Republican candidate for Cuyahoga County Executive, lobbied the Ohio legislature on behalf of the county to amend state law and allow the county to raise a quarter-percent sales tax to fund the Convention Center and Medical Mart.
As a political candidate, Weingart has been a vocal critic of the Medical Mart, known these days as the Global Center for Health Innovation. In recent weeks he has drawn a sharp distinction between himself and Democratic challenger Chris Ronayne in their respective views on the future of the facility.
Weingart strenuously opposes a county plan, (currently being fast-tracked), to pump $46 million into the building to tinker with the ballrooms and the escalators and thereby more formally merge it with the adjacent Huntington Convention Center.
Weingart believes that these new expenditures represent a waste of public money — a position shared by the vast majority of the public — and has proposed selling both the Global Center and the Hilton Downtown Hotel to salvage whatever value may be salvaged for county taxpayers. The debt service on both buildings comprise a sizable percentage of the county's annual budget and Weingart considers those obligations burdens that taxpayers should no longer have to bear. (Ronayne's views are more qualified. He objects to the $46 million price tag for the Global Center overhaul, but shares the view of Destination Cleveland that the convention business is an important economic driver for downtown Cleveland and the region. He has said he would not sell the facility.)
Cleveland.com county reporter Kaitlin Durbin found on the website of Weingart's consulting firm
, LNE Group, an apparent contradiction. Though Weingart opposes the Global Center now, it was through his professional advocacy that it was constructed in the first place.
"Then-current state law authorized only a convention and visitors bureau to manage the construction of a convention center," the LNE Group site boasts
. "The county engaged LNE Group to change state law to enable county elected officials to raise funds for the new convention center and medical mart through a sales tax increase and to manage the construction of the new facilities."
Weingart was paid $49,000 for his services, cleveland.com reported.
In comments to Durbin, Weingart downplayed his involvement. He argued that his lobbying work on the county's behalf was 15 years ago, in 2007, and that the Medical Mart concept "made all the sense" at the time.
When Scene reached out for additional comment, Weingart said the law in question gave the county commissioners authority to either levy the funds or put the measure before voters.
"I would have put it on the ballot," he said, "just as I did in 1995 with the Browns and the Sin Tax."
Weingart said that he believed the county was set up for success, and that 15 years later, while the Convention Center may be considered a "moderate success," the Medical Mart has been a disaster. Weingart rejected the idea that his earlier work for the county and his current campaign positions represent a contradiction.
"In fact it's wholly consistent to say that when you're in a hole, you stop digging," he said. "You stop funding a project that doesn't make any sense. This is what people in the private sector do all the time. If you start a project, and it's not working, you pull the plug and you salvage what you can. That's not inconsistent."
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