The Mistake in Eastlake?

A councilman warns his city about the dangers of baseball.

Too Much Sleep Thursday and Friday at the Cleveland Cinematheque
The stopper: Komarjanski is council's lone opponent of - the stadium plans. - Walter  Novak
The stopper: Komarjanski is council's lone opponent of the stadium plans.
It's possible to park at an Eastlake strip mall and get a gun, a fake tan, and a cash advance on a paycheck. But if you want anything more, you do what everyone else in Eastlake does: head for Willoughby or Mentor.

"There isn't a single place in this city for our citizens to spend their entertainment dollar," admits one dejected Eastlake official. "We don't have a movie theater; we don't even have a bowling alley. It's total economic leakage."

Eastlake is betting millions of borrowed dollars that baseball can stanch the exodus. By spring 2003, a Class A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians will have a stadium at Vine Street and Route 91, the city's busiest intersection. The park's 6,000 seats will induce fans to linger in restaurants and shops that spring up on surrounding blocks, and tax revenue will pour into City Hall. That's the hope, anyway.

Mayor Dan DiLiberto, the park's leading proponent, figures baseball is an easy sell in Northeast Ohio, even if the total cost is around $18 million. He also knows that no one will get nostalgic when the current occupants of 91 and Vine are displaced. The corner presently offers a BP station, a used car lot, and a dusty white house with eight yellowed Plain Dealers on its doorstep.

"All you have to do is ride up Vine Street to see what we need," says DiLiberto of the eyesore-laden thoroughfare. According to a city-sponsored study, the stadium will add $7 million to $12 million annually to Lake County's economy, with Eastlake grabbing the fattest share.

The plan came together when the city hired Gateway consultant Tom Chema, to whom Eastlake's park is a "little itty-bitty thing" compared to his work midwifing Jacobs Field and Gund Arena. It was Chema who found Kip Horsburgh, a Gates Mills scion of a Cleveland gear manufacturing family, to buy the Quad City River Bandits and move them to Lake County. In May, Horsburgh signed a memorandum of understanding with the city guaranteeing that, if Eastlake builds a stadium, he will put his team in it.

There are dangers, of course. Horsburgh admits he's taking a "significant risk" in betting the park will be ready in time, and that minor leaguers can lure fans despite the presence of the real Indians a short drive down I-90. There's also the small matter of funding. Chema still isn't sure how much the structure will cost or whether promised funding will actually come through. But DiLiberto, ever the optimist, sweeps such concerns away with a shrug. "All the funding is falling in place. We don't even worry about that."

It's nonetheless hard to imagine a city with a $14 million annual budget easily funding a $17 million-$20 million project, especially after the mayor promised it would be built without raising property taxes.

In fact, DiLiberto claims the city will spend no more than the roughly $5 million in bonds it will cost to acquire the land, which will be paid back through Horsburgh's lease. The rest of the funding will come from state and federal grants, corporate sponsorships, and the sale of city-owned luxury suites. Horsburgh is also kicking in $2 million.

Unfortunately, only Horsburgh's contribution is cast in stone. Eastlake must compete with other cities for the rest of the money, and Lake County has been hesitant to pitch in until Eastlake provides an outline of what funding is solid and what remains a flight of fancy. If such a list exists, the mayor is keeping it under wraps.

"I can't go into a lot of detail on that," says DiLiberto, noting that private investors might be scared away if negotiations are publicized.

But the city council seems to trust its mayor. Stadium votes usually pass 6-1. It's the same voting pattern that occurs on most city issues. "Not most," corrects Councilman Bob Mahler. "All."

Colleague Stephen Komarjanski provides the lone dissent. He's terrified that baseball will bankrupt Eastlake.

Komarjanski, says Mahler, is the main reason there hasn't been full disclosure of funding. "If we say we're getting funding from this source, he'll call them up and say, 'Don't fund this stadium. You're wasting your money.' You can't work with the man."

Komarjanski disagrees. A council member for 20 years, he claims he's been uncooperative only for the last eight, which happen to coincide with DiLiberto's reign. But during that time, he's become a tad ill-tempered in his isolation. When told of his opponents' views, Komarjanski's face reddens; he folds his arms and smiles contemptuously. "The other six council people are orchestrating the mayor's propaganda line," he scoffs. "And he's trying to put me in a corner as this negative individual."

If he sounds cynical, Komarjanski maintains that it's simply "my job as a councilman to ask questions."

Most of those questions are about stadium funding. "I've got a sneaky feeling the mayor's flying by the seat of his pants on this," Komarjanski says. That's why he drafted a charter amendment that would require large expenditures -- read: those on the scale of a stadium -- to be approved by citywide vote. Two thousand Eastlakers signed the petition, which was turned in to council last week. If council doesn't put the amendment on the November ballot, "Then we're talking about legal action," he says.

Komarjanski insists he's not against baseball per se, but his amendment might unleash enough legal fallout to delay construction. That could upset the agreement between Horsburgh and Eastlake, jeopardizing the team's future in the city. This scenario has occurred to Komarjanski, but he reasons that a lost baseball team is better than forgotten democracy.

"The right for the people to vote is preeminent, especially in a project of this magnitude."

Komarjanski's campaign infuriates DiLiberto. The mayor has taken 18 months to stoke public interest. He's courted Indians management and potential owners. He's charged through red tape, chased public grants. Yet the one man he can't convince can still unravel it all.

"I don't want to discuss it," says DiLiberto of the charter amendment. He won't speak of his foe either, other than to acknowledge Komarjanski's nefarious presence. "We have one person who wants to sabotage [the stadium] because that person is running for mayor against me," DiLiberto says.

Indeed, to the mayor and his many allies, Komarjanski's amendment and his bid for the mayor's office are one and the same. Mahler says Komarjanski is "desperate" for votes, and that by trying to thwart the stadium plans, he's "punishing the people of Eastlake."

Komarjanski, however, predicts the stadium's arrival will engender a new round of controversy and dispute. He cites Canton, where the owner grumbled over the field's drainage system, then deserted the city before the lease ended. In Akron, where the Aeros are hugely popular, the city threatened to evict the team, even as it was setting attendance records; the two sides couldn't agree on who should pay which bills. And while Akron's downtown is beginning to show the vibrancy baseball promised, the city has been forced to trim services to pay for the park.

Komarjanski wonders whether DiLiberto has considered these possibilities, or if he can see only as far as his next term.

"He'll toss out the first pitch in 2003, and at the end of 2004, he'll say 'Adios! I'm off to Florida.' And we'll be stuck with that white elephant."

Then again, it could be just a matter of perspective. DiLiberto and Chema have considered the experiences of other cities. Their findings only reaffirm their conviction that baseball will win in Eastlake. After all, Canton doesn't regret building a stadium, despite its team's move to Akron, according to Mayor Richard Watkins. And in Akron, Mark Williamson, a spokesman for Mayor Dan Plusquellic, says, "Everything about it has been good." He adds that even the stadium's leftover debt hasn't prompted second-guessing.

Komarjanski counters that those are far bigger cities. A ballpark won't break their budget like it could in Eastlake. "We're not an affluent city," he points out. "We have a lot of . . . well . . . we're not Mentor."

Mike Agganis, owner of the Akron Aeros, sides with Komarjanski. "You can't compare Eastlake with Akron. It's like comparing Cleveland against Akron. And I hope they're not depending on Cleveland people [for fans]. I don't think people are going to drive 25 miles to see a Class A team."

Minor-league profit, he says, hinges on corporate sponsorships, wealthy people gobbling up season tickets and luxury boxes, and a mercantile base to pay for stadium advertising. Agganis doubts those things exist in Eastlake.

The future of the stadium will be known by September 1, the deadline for the city to prove it can fund construction in time for opening day 2003. Komarjanski's charter amendment, which some in City Hall say is unconstitutional, remains the wild card.

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