The Bad Hands Team

The Browns' Fred Nance has played a key role in every deal you'd like to forget

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An editor at The Plain Dealer once explained that the reason the Cleveland Browns get so much page-one coverage on Monday mornings after a game is because people care more about the team than they do about the welfare of the city or the competence of the officials governing it.

Sports are an escape from reality — and especially here, where government balances precariously between incompetence and corruption. That is why we have overlooked so much when it comes to the Browns that we lose sight of what a bad story they too have been on and off the field.

The announcement last week that the Browns are stepping forward to help in the century-old quest to develop the lakefront came as curious and alarming news. Most alarming is the presence of the ubiquitous lawyer Fred Nance, whose every public appearance causes his own law partners to shudder and concerned citizens to fear that the public treasury is again at risk.

It's hard to forget that Nance counseled City Hall in the days of Mayor Mike White and his marauding best man, Nate Gray, who is serving so much time in jail for public corruption that he will be eligible for social security by the time he gets out.

Nance handled initial negotiations on the convention center, an unbid project shrouded in enough secrecy to ensure that countless years will pass before we know what happened to our tax dollars.

Nance also was involved with the medical mart, where early returns have it trailing expectations in the same fashion as the celebrated Euclid Corridor, a $200 million rejuvenation project that rendered the avenue lifeless and barren.

The irony here is that Nance also played a key role in negotiating the return of the National Football League to Cleveland and the building of a new stadium. Faced with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the lakefront, a meddling Mike White blew it by building the new Browns Stadium — used fewer than a dozen times a year — on one of the most valuable chunks of public land in North America.

Last year Roldo Bartimole, for decades the still-small voice of the community, and one of few who not only follows the business side of such matters but understands the devastating significance of the figures, revealed the following in his online report Cleveland Leader:

The current debt for the stadium, including financing, is $184 million in public money. In addition, the city pays the Browns $850,000 a year until 2020 out of its general fund as a sort of thank-you for doing business here; that sum rises annually until it reaches $7.5 million in 2025.

The cost of the stadium is said to be around $300 million, but the smart money says we'll never really know.

As for the Browns? They take all the money made from ticket and loge sales, and pay only $250,000 a year in rent for the stadium.

Nance negotiated this deal on behalf of the city. Now he is general counsel for the Browns.

The past is littered with a myriad of failed plans for the lakefront and botched opportunities scuttled by paltry politics and sanguine self-interest, two house specialties in these parts.

The Browns have said they will not invest in lakefront development, nor will owner Randy Lerner, or apparently anyone else — and this is the crux of the problem. If lakefront land is so valuable, why have private investors declined to flock to our shores? One good reason is that business does not trust local government.

Mayor Frank Jackson lost the best lakefront tenant he had when he failed to be responsive to Eaton Corporation, which moved its headquarters to Chagrin Highlands after knocking heads with City Hall.

Another Cleveland businessman invested millions on a lakefront project in accordance with Mayor Jane Campbell's development plan. When Jackson secretly discarded his predecessor's three-year-old plan, the project floundered.

In essence, the Browns' new proposal is a front for Nance. It gives him the imprimatur to take advantage of a feckless and aimless mayor who desperately wants to do something with the lakefront but has neither the capability nor capacity to do so. It is also probable that Nance is hustling some bond work for his law firm, the estimable Squire, Sanders & Dempsey.

The highly touted $267 million Wolstein East Bank project, which sits on land at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River, exemplifies the city's plight. There is so much public money leveraged into this development that it might as well be a government venture.

It is likely that any waterfront project, no matter how attractive, will be financed the same way. And no one would be better at it than Nance. The problem is that public money has a way of becoming a ransom for bad government.

Meanwhile, this all brings up the issue of the Lerner family and its legacy with the team. It is wise to remember that Al Lerner was an accomplice in moving the Browns to Baltimore, and there will always be lingering suspicion over why the NFL awarded him the new franchise when seemingly more attractive bidders — including Tribe savior Dick Jacobs — also wanted in.

It was also Al Lerner who greenmailed and trashed Ameritrust, one of the city's oldest banks.

And then there is Randy Lerner, with his record of failure and indifference in his efforts to right the franchise. He turned a once-hallowed team into a perennial loser. You would think that he might consider investing in the lakefront, given his cash flow of public money.

It is likely that The Plain Dealer article heralding the Browns' development plans was designed by the club to gauge reaction to such an idea. There is something sad in seeing Browns President Mike Holmgren — by all accounts a competent and dedicated man — fronting for Fred Nance.

What Holmgren can do best for Cleveland is produce a team that wins football games. The coach doesn't need Randy Lerner and Frank Jackson in the same backfield, running yet another Fred Nance North Coast offense.

Michael D. Roberts is a former Plain Dealer city editor and editor of Cleveland Magazine. He has been writing about the city for nearly 50 years.

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