Hard Landing

Tiny Brook Park tries to hijack Mayor Mike White's lofty plans for expanding Hopkins Airport.

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Big and brown, the International Exposition Center rests forlornly in a sea of asphalt parking spaces, between wooded fields and the fences of Cleveland Hopkins Airport.

It's more than one-fifth of a mile long and almost as wide. It's not very pretty -- it was built as a bomber plant in World War II, and it has about as much charm as you'd expect a bomber plant to have -- but it's the ninth largest convention center in the world.

Workers ride golf carts to get across the 800,000-square-foot main exhibit hall, which every year hosts huge public shows featuring cars, RVs, home and garden models, and dogs. Continental Airlines has brought 727s inside for parties. A 10-story Ferris wheel sticks up through the towering roof into a glass atrium -- centerpiece of an indoor amusement park held in the center every spring, when 62 carnival rides twirl and dive inside its walls.

It may look like just a huge, sprawling building to most people. But to Cleveland and Brook Park, the two cities fighting to own it, the I-X Center is a fortress to be conquered or defended, the key battleground in a decades-long war for control of the land near Hopkins.

The war between the cities has become Northeast Ohio's version of the conflict between Israel and Palestine: a dispute over territory fed by mutual distrust, where compromise is elusive.

And the International Exposition Center is Brook Park and Cleveland's Jerusalem: the land both sides see as the key to their future, which neither side will give up.

Cleveland insists it will need to tear down the I-X Center several years from now to build a new runway for Hopkins Airport. But the building lies inside Brook Park, and the suburb says Cleveland can build the runway somewhere else. When Cleveland bought the I-X Center last year, Brook Park sued to seize it by eminent domain. The case goes before a judge next month.

Though Brook Park has only 22,000 residents -- about as many people as one of Cleveland's 21 wards -- it holds the upper hand in the fight so far. It has beaten Cleveland in court before, forcing the city to scale back its airport expansion plans, and next month's case will be fought on some of the same legal ground.

To Cleveland, Brook Park is an obstinate neighbor endangering the growth of the whole region. If Hopkins can't expand, the city says, Greater Cleveland's economy will wither away, as companies move to cities with bigger, better airports.

To Brook Park, Cleveland is a huge, demanding, and arrogant neighbor -- taking piece after piece of Brook Park for Hopkins over the years. It treasures the I-X Center as its best hope for future growth, imagining hotels and restaurants around it that would attract people from across the world for huge trade shows.

"We've made more sacrifices for the expansion of Hopkins Airport than any community in this region, including the city of Cleveland. And we've made our last sacrifice," says Brook Park Mayor Tom Coyne. "The I-X Center is a tremendous regional asset, and we're going to fight."

"My backyard goes down 90 feet into the Metroparks," says Coyne. "Some people thought [Cleveland Mayor] Mike White and I should take a walk back there and discuss the [airport] issue at night."

What if they had? "One of us would've fell," he says.

Coyne has been mayor of Brook Park for 19 years. He's tried to move on to bigger things, running for Congress three times, but he lost in the Democratic primaries in 1992 and 1994, and failed to unseat U.S. Rep. Steven LaTourette in the general election in 1996.

So he still presides over his small blue-collar suburb, drawing a salary of over $100,000 from a city treasury fattened by two Ford Motor Company plants. He's a leader of the "D-2000" alliance of West Side Democrats, which has used its substantial power to help favored candidates win recent local and county-wide elections.

For eight years, Coyne has fought with White over how to expand the airport, spending about $10 million on lawyers and consultants.

Coyne isn't afraid to give his uncensored opinions of his fellow mayor. Ask him what he thinks of White as a leader, and he goes from conciliatory to scathing in a few breaths:

"I think he's been a good mayor for the city of Cleveland. His own personality is what's bringing about his demise. You have to be able to work with people.

"His personality prohibits the city from taking the next step to be a great city."

For most of his 11 years as Cleveland's mayor, White has been working to expand Hopkins, which is owned and operated by Cleveland and lies within its city limits. And this week, the city expects to receive good news: approval from the federal government to build a badly needed new runway.

Part of it should open for traffic around the end of 2001, providing critical relief for Hopkins. The airport, which is smaller than the airports in most other major cities, is expected to max out on its current capacity next year. Brook Park does not officially object to the short-term plan.

But Cleveland will need yet another runway at Hopkins sometime in the 2010s. And concept drawings for the runway go straight through the I-X Center -- and a Brook Park neighborhood made up of hundreds of homes.

When Cleveland and Brook Park's attorneys face off in court on September 11, each trying to convince Probate Judge John Donnelly that their city should own the I-X Center, their fight could determine the future of Hopkins's long-term expansion.

"It's [White's] contention that the only way the airport can be expanded is to destroy the I-X Center," says Coyne. "And one can doubt and question whether he has another motive in doing that: Without the I-X Center, it makes it so much easier for him to say, 'Well, we need to expend these public dollars downtown for a convention center.'"

White has denied that his downtown convention center plans have anything to do with his airport decisions.

Coyne confidently predicts Brook Park will win the court case. Five years ago, Brook Park won a similar suit over a piece of land near the airport.

And if he does win, Coyne says he'll sit down with Cleveland and help plan future airport expansion -- on Brook Park's terms, with the I-X Center staying in place.

"When we take over the I-X Center, we're going to have one of the largest victory parties in the United States," Coyne vows. "I think we can fill all two and a half million square feet with all of the citizens of Brook Park and their relatives."

But Mike White is hardly ready to concede defeat. His airport director, LaVonne Sheffield McClain, says the I-X Center case will be different from the court battle Brook Park won five years ago.

"They're not going to win. They really aren't," she says.

Sheffield McClain insists the I-X Center is the logical place for a future runway for Hopkins. "All the debate aside, all the posturing aside, that's where it will be sited," she says.

White hasn't hesitated to portray Coyne as an obstacle to economic progress. He's dismissed Coyne's insistence on expanding Hopkins around the I-X Center as unrealistic.

But lately, he's avoiding public debate with Coyne. He declined to talk to Scene for this story, and members of his administration are not attending public forums on the airport issue where Coyne is speaking.

Meanwhile, members of the anti-White majority on city council are criticizing him for not compromising with Coyne. City Council President Mike Polensek has invited White, Coyne, and several other suburban officials to an "airport summit," set for fall or early winter, aimed at resolving the dispute with Brook Park and other complaints over airport expansion. White hasn't yet said whether he'll attend.

"The City of Cleveland needs to sit down and negotiate a settlement with Brook Park that is not everything we want and not everything Brook Park wants," Polensek says. "[People can] disagree and still be agreeable. That's what's been lacking in this administration. It can't seem to agree with anybody."

Is it possible, Polensek is asked, that Coyne, as well as White, is being stubborn?

"Well, Tommy can be stubborn at times as well. I know that. I know him. But I also know that if I was in his shoes, I'd be doing the same damn thing!" Polensek says. "You put somebody in a corner, and you don't give them a way out. [If] you don't offer them a compromise, they're coming through you."

Sheffield McClain says the White administration has tried to compromise.

"We attempted to reach a settlement. We couldn't," she says. "Perhaps the council president was not involved in all the discussions . . . There was no middle ground there for Brook Park."

She says Cleveland offered to reimburse Brook Park for whatever tax revenues it would lose from the I-X Center's demolition, but not for any lost potential Brook Park claims the property represents.

But Coyne says the only settlement he's interested in would include an economic development agreement between the two cities for the area around Hopkins that would leave the I-X Center in place.

Polensek (together with other members of Cleveland City Council, such as Aviation Committee Chair Mike Dolan) is willing to listen to Coyne's arguments that a future runway could go around the center.

In fact, they sound more sympathetic toward Coyne -- the mayor who's suing their city -- than they are to White, the mayor of their city. That may reflect not only differences on the issues, but also a political fact: Tom Coyne has a lot of friends, and right now, Mike White has very few.

And while White faces criticism of his airport stance in his own city, Coyne does not. Former Brook Park City Councilman John Bernath says no one in Brook Park has protested the $10 million expense of fighting Cleveland over the I-X Center. He estimates that "99 percent" of Brook Park residents favor Coyne's airport positions.

At Brook Park City Hall, residents can pick up long spools of yellow ribbon to hang from their porch railings and lampposts -- a sign of the support for preserving the I-X Center. The ribbons are especially popular on Arden Avenue, a one-block street of middle-class homes that lies in the path of the proposed runway.

"One resident started doing it, we got calls about it, and we started providing the ribbon," says Coyne. "It's usually reserved for when American heroes are being held hostage. I guess maybe our people feel we're being held hostage."

War metaphors come easily to Coyne after so many years of disputes with White. This winter, when Cleveland sent mailings to Brook Park residents attacking Coyne's stance on the airport and the I-X Center, Coyne shot back with mailings of his own, including one that accused White of "tyranny" and said he was "polluting" mailboxes in Brook Park.

"People felt it was an invasion of their country by a foreign power trying to airlift propaganda in," Coyne says. "[White has] been trying to force his will on the citizenry of Brook Park since this plan was established. He thought we'd roll over to his demands. We haven't done that, and we're not going to do that.

"This is America. Tyrants don't work in this environment. At least, not for long."

"We've always had some sort of fight going on with [Cleveland]," says Bernath, who served on Brook Park's city council for 24 years between 1962 and 1999. "Up until we started fighting them . . . they'd just run over you; just do what the hell they wanted to, when they wanted to."

Brook Park officials still recall how, just as their city was about to buy lands around the airport in the '60s and '80s, Cleveland swooped in at the last minute with a lot more money.

"This is the case of the big city [that] thinks they're going to do whatever they want to do," says Coyne. "Ninety percent of the airport was built on Brook Park property over the years. They annexed it when we were a village, they took it, they bought it under all kinds of different auspices."

But at the I-X Center, Brook Park has drawn the line.

"We can't afford to lose the I-X Center ground. We have nothing else in our city to possibly build to bring in money," says Bernath. "Every councilman and every mayor" in Brook Park has agreed, he says, that "we must keep that land, because we have no other land to build a tax base on."

Constructed in 1942, the I-X Center produced bombers during World War II and tanks during the Korean and Vietnam wars. After Vietnam, the federal government decided to sell it.

That's when Brook Park and Cleveland fought their first war over the building. Twice in the mid-1970s, Brook Park and Cleveland both bid on it. The first time, Brook Park was the high bidder, but its option expired without the city buying the plant.

In 1977, Cleveland's port control director declared that Cleveland would tear down the plant for airport expansion if it bought the building. Brook Park put in its own bid, hoping to save the plant and entice Volkswagen to build cars there. (The company built a factory in Pennsylvania instead.)

The Park Corporation outbid Brook Park and decided to turn the building into a convention and trade show hall. It finally opened as the I-X Center in 1985.

Meanwhile, Cleveland, faced with a financial crisis, had put its airport expansion plans aside.

"We were trying to save [the city's] electric system," says U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who was mayor in 1978 and 1979. "The resources weren't there to purchase a tank plant -- unless I was going to produce tanks to defend the electric system."

Expanding Hopkins remained a low priority until White became mayor. In 1992, White proposed an ambitious expansion plan for the airport. It showed long runways reaching into Brook Park -- one of them through the I-X Center.

"We were at a meeting of mayors, and he brought this in the room," says Coyne. "I looked at it and said, 'You're not going to do that!'"

The plan would have wiped out large sections of Brook Park's neighborhoods west of the Berea Freeway. "There'd have been almost a thousand homes in Brook Park that would have been taken for his original expansion plan, which was totally unacceptable to us," says Coyne.

Four years of battles followed. Cleveland owned a parcel of land inside Brook Park that was crucial to the expansion; Brook Park filed suit to seize it, using its power of eminent domain. The suburb also passed new zoning restrictions that made it much more difficult for land inside its city limits to be used for airports. Cleveland sued in federal court to overturn the new restrictions.

In 1995, Brook Park beat Cleveland twice in court. A county judge let Brook Park take ownership of the disputed land. And a federal judge ruled that Cleveland had to abide by Brook Park's zoning rules.

The next year, White and Coyne reached a cease-fire agreement that allowed a compromise airport plan to go forward -- the one that, four years later, is now close to federal approval.

The compromise plan did not include the I-X Center runway and took out no homes in Brook Park. In exchange, Brook Park agreed not to object to the airport expansion plan.

"We made an agreement that provided him an envelope in which to build runways," says Coyne. "But make no mistake about it: If we wouldn't have won in court, we wouldn't have had [an agreement]. He was forced to make these agreements with us."

The cities arranged a land swap. Cleveland got back the land it needed for the airport, while Brook Park got jurisdiction over the north side of Brookpark Road, which was full of strip clubs and adult bookstores. Cleveland police didn't patrol there much, since it was across I-480 from the rest of the city, and hotels and restaurants on the south side of the road had closed down because of the unsavory clientele from across the street. Cleveland paid Brook Park $5 million as part of the peace treaty -- which the suburb has used to buy out the adult businesses.

At the time of the agreement, White declared that the issue of a runway through the I-X Center would be left for future mayors to decide. But Coyne looked at the agreement differently.

"We were very clear," he says. "The I-X, always, was not going anywhere . . . We told [White] at the time, 'The way you're platting these things, it's going to be the last expansion of the airport. The only way you can change that is by . . . having some mutual agreements with Brook Park.'"

This Friday, Cleveland expects to receive federal approval to break ground on a new runway at Hopkins's northwest end, near the NASA Glenn Research Center. It'll increase the airport's capacity by almost half upon its completion in 2003. Three years after that, Cleveland will also extend a current runway so that the airport can handle bigger planes capable of flying nonstop to almost anywhere in the world.

The city expects those two runways to handle the traffic at Hopkins until about 2017. A study by the Greater Cleveland Growth Association, released two years ago, says the runways may be overloaded as early as 2010.

"It's all about economic growth," says Gordon Harnett, CEO of Brush Engineered Materials and chair of an air service committee set up by the Greater Cleveland Growth Association and the Northeast Ohio Regional Business Council. "Corporations, if they can't get in and out of the city -- or can't get where they're trying to go on a reliable, consistent basis -- are going to choose to locate someplace else."

So sometime in the 2010s, Hopkins will probably need a third major runway. And finding a place for it will be a huge struggle. Hopkins is surrounded by NASA and the Cleveland Metroparks' Rocky River Reservation on the west, I-480 and Cleveland's West Park neighborhood on the north, the Ford plants and the Berea Freeway on the east -- and the I-X Center to the south.

Soon after the Growth Association released its study, the White administration began negotiating to buy the I-X Center from the Park Corporation. They announced a deal in January 1999.

The day before Cleveland's city council voted to approve the purchase, Brook Park's city council voted to try to seize the I-X Center by eminent domain. The cease-fire was over.

Brook Park's suit for the I-X Center has dragged through Probate Court for a year and a half. In May, Judge Donnelly threw out many of Cleveland's arguments -- a ruling Brook Park celebrated as an early victory. A newspaper headline about the decision -- "Cleveland loses battle in war over I-X Center" -- is taped to a door near Coyne's office, not far from political cartoons satirizing White's airport efforts.

But on September 11, the two cities will go before Judge Donnelly to argue over the core of the case: whether there's a "reasonable assurance" that Cleveland will use the I-X Center property for airport expansion.

Cleveland's attorneys will likely tell Donnelly that the Cleveland area's economic health depends on someday expanding the airport through the I-X Center.

"The I-X Center property is necessary for the continued survival of the Cleveland Hopkins Airport," Cleveland's attorneys wrote in court papers last year. "Without this property, Cleveland cannot expand the airport. Cleveland needs this property and needs it now. Otherwise, the airport and the region will not survive."

The future runway will have to be about 3,600 feet or more from the current runway so that the two can operate independently of each other in bad weather. And if you draw a line parallel to the current runway and 3,600 feet away from it, it goes right through the I-X Center property and into a residential neighborhood of Brook Park.

Brook Park will likely tell the judge that the city can go around the I-X Center.

"If Cleveland plans to use [the property] for expansion, we will present evidence showing that our use of the I-X Center will not preclude expansion of the airport," says Peter Kirsch, an attorney for Brook Park.

Brook Park's airport consultant has analyzed several possible alternative runway layouts that go around the center. One idea requires revising Cleveland's short-term expansion plan and wedging two runways about 3,600 feet apart west of the I-X Center. But Cleveland would probably never agree to revising a plan on the verge of federal approval, and Brook Park's idea would take out even more of the NASA grounds than the current short-term plan does -- a cost Cleveland's airport consultant considers unacceptable.

Brook Park also says a future runway could go east of the I-X Center. Either it could go next to the Berea Freeway, or the freeway could be moved to make room, says Kirsch. Meanwhile, Coyne says a runway through the I-X Center would also require tearing down Hopkins's new Concourse D and new parking structures.

But Cleveland's airport consultant is skeptical. "A runway through the I-X Center property appears to be the most feasible location at this time," says Matt Lee of the firm Landrum & Brown. "The further away [a future] runway is from the current airfield, the more businesses, railroads, houses, apartment buildings, and schools you would have to relocate."

Brook Park will also argue in court that Cleveland's desired expansion plans are "speculative." They'll point out that Cleveland has no official plan for building a runway through the I-X Center, just ideas at the concept stage. They'll note that Cleveland will need to get much more land and many governmental approvals before it can ever build a runway -- including zoning approval from a hostile Brook Park.

Similar arguments helped convince a judge to rule in Brook Park's favor in the other land-acquisition case five years ago. In his ruling, Judge John Corrigan said Cleveland's airport expansion plans were speculative and that the city could build a runway north of the disputed land.

In this case, though, Cleveland may not have to prove it will build a runway on the property. The city will argue that it can use the land for several different airport activities.

Originally, Corrigan was the judge in the I-X Center case, too. But Cleveland complained that he was biased toward Brook Park, and Corrigan withdrew -- while denying the accusation and accusing Cleveland of judge-shopping.

A Brook Park victory could be costly to Cleveland, which bought the I-X Center for $66.5 million -- after Brook Park offered the Park Corporation $33 million for it, an offer based on a previous appraisal of the property. If Donnelly orders Cleveland to sell the I-X Center to Brook Park and a jury decides the center is worth less than $66.5 million, Cleveland will lose the difference between the two sale prices.

"We're in for one hell of a fight, which we could lose," says Mike Polensek. "And if we lose, we are going to lose a tremendous amount of money."

Coyne insists the I-X Center could be integrated into a future airport expansion -- perhaps by connecting it to a future terminal. And he says the I-X Center could be of immense value, not only to Brook Park, but to all of Greater Cleveland. "A vibrant I-X Center attracting trade shows -- maybe a few billion in the local economy -- and an expanded airport are not mutually exclusive. They can and will both work together, and work together very well," he says.

To illustrate the I-X Center's potential, Coyne points to a trade show that's expected to bring 40,000 welding and metal-forming company executives from around the world to the I-X Center next year. The throng of executives is expected to create an estimated $80 million in economic spinoff for the local economy.

"If we can do 8, 10, 12 shows a year like that, if we get even 5 percent of that business -- it's an $80 billion-a-year industry in this country," Coyne says. "It's a dynamic our region can't comprehend until we actually experience it."

But the welding and metal-forming show is currently the largest trade show the I-X Center books. Two million people come through the center's doors every year, but mostly for public shows. More than half of the 160 events at the center every year are smaller trade shows and corporate events in the center's ballroom and basement.

The Park Corporation -- which now leases the center from Cleveland -- doesn't release revenue figures for the center. But Coyne clearly prizes the I-X Center for its potential to attract out-of-towners more than its current reality.

How much tax revenue does the I-X Center generate for Brook Park? "Not very much at all," he admits.

Coyne's plan for the future depends on bringing hotels and restaurants to the land around the I-X Center, making it more attractive to show organizers. Coyne says Cleveland's airport plans have scared investors away, and he claims the Park Corporation didn't try hard enough to bring hotels to the land it owned.

Cleveland's airport director scoffs at the idea. "If there were going to be significant developments in terms of hotels, it would have happened by now, and it hasn't," says Sheffield McClain.

But Coyne says he has two hotel deals in the works for the land around the I-X Center, which he'll announce if the city wins in court. "We have one hotel deal that's complete, and we're working on a second one that would bring an entertainment complex here that would bring all the major entertainers: something like Branson, Missouri" -- home of a conglomeration of country music and family entertainment theaters -- "but to a higher degree," he says.

This is probably not news the White administration will take well. Filling the land around the I-X Center with hotels and concert halls will make it even harder for Cleveland ever to build a runway nearby.

Cleveland's arguments may soon get a new public boost from the Greater Cleveland Growth Association, which supported Cleveland's purchase of the I-X Center. The committee the Growth Association formed with the Regional Business Council has commissioned a study of alternatives at Hopkins. Though the study won't be released for a few months, committee chair Gordon Harnett makes it pretty clear what the groups' consultants have found.

"The I-X Center is going to be a major impediment to the expansion of the airport," Harnett says. "Expansion of Hopkins doesn't work with the I-X Center sitting in the middle of it.

"We have looked at the host of options at the airport, and what you quickly find is that the most appropriate, and probably least costly --and one that could be done on a timely basis -- is a runway that goes, essentially, through the I-X Center," Harnett says.

"I think our consultants would also suggest to you that it doesn't make good sense to have a convention and trade fair sitting in the middle of an airport," he says. "That land would have much greater value [if it were] related to airport activities."

So what happens next?

"If we're really serious about the future, we've got to cause Hopkins to happen, or we're going to have to look at a regional airport, which nobody really wants to do," says Mal Mixon, CEO of Invacare in Elyria and former chair of another business committee that looked at Hopkins's needs two years ago.

The mere thought of building a new airport seems to frighten those who've looked at it.

"Anyone who says let's move the airport somewhere else is not really dealing with reality," says Cleveland City Councilman Mike Dolan. "It's not practically possible to accumulate six to eight thousand acres of land. And even if you could, there is no money for things like that."

Will White and Coyne's feud keep Hopkins from expanding again after the current short-term plan is in place?

Coyne insists he, too, wants to make future expansion happen -- so the two cities will probably compromise someday.

But what will the compromise look like? And when the two mayors finally sit down again to talk, who will have the upper hand?

Rep. Dale Miller, who used to chair Cleveland City Council's Aviation Committee and now represents Cleveland's West Park neighborhood in the statehouse, has a theory about what to expect.

"I think probably the I-X Center needs to be taken. There's only so much land out there," Miller says. "But I think we should keep an open mind for a little while. And if [another] plan could be developed, we should try to do it. But my opinion is, it's unlikely.

"And if that's the case, the question is more, well, how does Brook Park get fairly compensated for the loss of that economic benefit?" Miller says Cleveland could either pay Brook Park a lump sum or give Brook Park a cut of some kind of economic development that the airport expansion will create.

The lawsuit, Miller says, won't change what happens in the end.

"I think, regardless, the outcome's going to be the same," he says. "I think the independent parallel runways are going to get built. If the I-X Center needs to be taken, it will be taken. It's just too important for the region to do otherwise.

"I think what the lawsuit is about is a haggling over how we're going to get there and what the compensation is going to be for any hardships that are created. If Brook Park wins the lawsuit, it would probably lead to an outcome in which Brook Park gets a higher level of compensation. But it [won't] affect too much what the airport looks like 30 or 40 years from now."

Mike Polensek, though neutral on whether the runway has to go through the I-X Center, suggests a similar idea. "If [the I-X Center] ultimately would have to come down for airport expansion, what are we going to do to put forth a revenue-sharing plan, or a business revitalization or development plan with Brook Park?" he asks. "You can't just take [the center] away from them and not give them something."

But Coyne doesn't sound at all open to that.

"What are they going to give us? Five to 10 million dollars a year for the rest of our lives for the city? That building has potential to generate a hundred million dollars in one week."

He says he can't name a price that would compensate Brook Park for losing the I-X Center. "I think any amount of money that could be offered is just robbing the future. We're getting paid like Judas to sell out the future. That's my view."

Coyne, Miller is told, hardly sounds willing to compromise.

"I think that's where he needs to be right now," Miller says. "He was elected by his residents to look out for his community. I think he's doing it really well.

"I don't think there's any bad people in this story."

Will Tom Coyne ever give up his Jerusalem? If he will, he isn't letting on.

"I don't have a price," Coyne says. "If Cleveland wants to make a proposal to the City of Brook Park, I have an obligation to present it to our city council. I don't have a price."

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