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Friday, November 1, 2019

Do Not Let Cleveland.com Continue to Distort Q Deal Narrative

Posted By on Fri, Nov 1, 2019 at 12:10 PM

click to enlarge SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
The Sept. 26 episode of This Week in the CLE, cleveland.com's weekly news and analysis podcast, featured a segment with reporter Marc Bona about the renovations at what is now known as Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.

Bona's conversation with editor Chris Quinn and podcast co-host Laura Johnston is effervescent with the same sort of dishonesty that typified cleveland.com's coverage of the Q Deal debacle from start to finish. 

Bona, who writes foremost about beer, need not be held to quite the same standards as Quinn. He did not report on the deal or its aftermath through 2017 and appeared on the podcast mainly to promote the arena's physical and technological enhancements on the occasion of its then-pending open house.



But the distortion of history was nevertheless profound, and requires correction.

The early part of the conversation was captivating in the respect that Bona and Quinn have so thoroughly ingested the Cavs talking points that they spoke, in my view, in absurd hyperbole. They described the Q before the renovations as a uniquely awful and congested venue, a "claustrophobic" "nightmare." (My own experience, having attended many Cavs games, was that the Q was congested in pretty much the same way that other professional arenas are congested, with identical dynamics related to player and game quality; i.e., the Q was much more crowded when LeBron was on the team.)

Bona and Quinn, echoing Cavs' CEO Len Komoroski, described with special distaste how they had been forced to eat meals at the arena huddled over trash cans, an experience they described as universal.

"If I had to pick one thing in the arena, and we've all talked about this in the past couple of weeks," Bona said, "they've added some areas, basically some notches, cutouts and alcoves with tables and chairs, so you can sit down and have a meal or a drink, or talk to people, and not be in the middle of a congested concourse. We have all — including Len Komoroski, because this was his pet peeve, we were told — we have all had meals and drinks huddled over a garbage can."

Have we, though? This has been a Cavs talking point since early 2017, and it always struck a false note with me. Maybe my standards are just very low, but I think what I do is grab a beer and a hot dog and then scamper right back to my seat. This is more or less how I assumed most people bought and consumed refreshments during games. Are lots of people honestly hanging out in the concourse eating full meals? Are they doing so huddled like hobos over trash cans?

Maybe they are! But all that's beside the point. The real dishonesty arrived when they began rehashing the renovation's financing. 

In the interest of addressing a few significant misrepresentations, I'll transcribe the relevant portion of the conversation, which began when Johnston asked Bona if he thought the renovations were "worth $185 million." (That's the purported all-in cost of the project).

Bona: There has been a lot of talk about the money on this, but in fairness to the Cavs — I think in our institution, we really look at public and private financing — but I think it is very difficult for one entity privately to fund the bill for something like this. And I think that people can get outraged when it's coming solely from public dollars. This was a public-private marriage in a lot of ways, but not in all ways. For one thing, another change in the arena, you're going to see a lot of art. You're going to see paintings, portraits, multimedia sculptures and statues. One hundred percent of every piece of art, the funding for that art, is coming directly from the pockets of Dan and Jennifer Gilbert. I really want to make a point of saying that now, so we don't get just absolutely slammed with, 'I can't believe my tax dollars went for this.' Well they didn't, so don't worry about it.

Quinn: Well, you know, there was the controversy about this project. Back when it was happening, we were in the middle of an election season, which just exacerbated the politics. There was a big movement to get it on the ballot to stop it that ultimately fizzled. And one of the reasons it did is because the Cavs, accurately, were able to show people that there's no better deal on an arena in this country for the taxpayer than this. You can argue whether or not you like any public funding, but as these deals go, Cleveland has a better one than anybody else. The odd thing is, as fiery as it all was back then, you haven't seen that this time. You haven't seen anybody stepping up to protest it, you haven't seen the anger. You haven't even seen people reviving the argument from back then. Are people just looking to see this place, because it is 'the living room'?

Bona: I think so. We've got the open house coming up and I think people do want to see it. I think you're right Chris. Things have really dissipated in terms of the public criticism. I almost hesitate to use the word 'outrage.' I think it was strong but not overly strong. And basically I think the Cavs did a smart thing, and we've looked at it too. It's like buying a house, you look at comparables in the area that are fair comparisons to make. And that's what they've done. And Cleveland is coming out looking pretty good compared to other arenas in other cities.

(Please do pardon the following discursive response.)

Regarding Bona's opening salvo, entities come in a vast array of sizes. It is not difficult for "a single entity" to privately fund a renovation of this magnitude when the entity in question is the multi-billion-dollar professional sports franchise that operates the facility to be renovated.

The "something like this" Bona references is a facelift on a building. It's not at all like the city's lead paint remediation program, for example, which will likely require major contributions from public, corporate and non-profit partners if it's going to succeed. (Though just to illustrate, it would not be difficult, from a financial perspective, for a single entity like the Cleveland Clinic to fund the entirety of the lead program on its own, what with its $8.9 billion in revenue in 2018.)

Again, I don't want to slam Bona, whose job was to describe the new offerings at the arena, (which he did well), but the fact that Dan and Jennifer Gilbert allegedly personally paid for the artwork at the facility is irrelevant, and should not be touted as a measure of their generosity. It strategically distracts from the swindle. 

Furthermore, it's not like the public contribution was only intended for specific line items. The county handed over $140 million from a bond issue and will be paying that down — "servicing the debt" — until 2034. The project's total cost was initially estimated at $282 million, but could be much higher, pending market conditions. That figure includes towering interest payments for which the public is on the hook and the creation of a reserve fund that's likely to be used in forthcoming Progressive Field negotiations. The largest public chunk, nearly $100 million, is the city's, which will come from the arena's admissions tax.

The Cavs will be chipping in their portion via what they had been paying for "rent" on the facility. They'll now be putting their rental payments towards the renovations. BUT ALSO DAN GILBERT HAS BOUGHT THE PAINTINGS, SO QUIT YER BELLYACHIN'!!!

The most egregious dishonesty in the above transcription is the word "fizzled." The opposition to the deal was the largest, most well-organized and most energetic challenge to established power in Northeast Ohio in recent history. And the opposition won, lest anyone forget, when the Supreme Court of Ohio sided with referendum seekers in their quest to put the city's legislation authorizing funding for the project on the ballot. The Cavs then declared the deal officially dead. The opposition was then sabotaged. Some of the most powerful figures in the county, including U.S. Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, exerted their influence to resuscitate the deal. The GCC, the largest opposition group, became party to the same sort of backroom dealing they had been decrying. GCC unilaterally withdrew the petitions seeking referendum. 

The quashing of the opposition had precisely zero to do with the Cavs talking points. The Cavs certainly weren't able to show those who opposed the deal that "there's no better deal on an arena in this country for the taxpayer than this." (If one were so inclined, one could reference the story on Quinn's own website which lists the arenas financed entirely by private dollars, by definition "better deals" for the public than the Q's. BUT THOSE ARE MAJOR MARKETS! CLEVELAND IS A MID-MARKET CITY AND IS pUncHINg AbOVe itS WEIghT!!!

Setting to the side Quinn's acceptance of the premise that the costly renovations were necessary because the Cavs said so — the arena had to "stay competitive in the short-term years ahead" — does he still believe that Komoroski and co. were good-faith negotiators? One trembles at the notion of the editor of Cleveland's largest media outlet referring to the Cavs' characterization of the deal as accurate.

The negotiations themselves were awash in so much glaring deceit that it's a wonder Komoroski can be taken seriously when he stands before a Cleveland Planning Commission design-review panel, as he did yesterday, and talks about how JACK Casino's proposed new skywalk will "serve as a spark to revitalize Ontario Avenue." We should all know by now that Komoroski speaks in the standard Orwellian fashion, in which everything he says means the opposite.
  • "The skywalk will serve as a spark to revitalize Ontario." = (The skywalk will zap the life out of Ontario.)
  • "The Cavs will be covering shortfalls on the Q deal." = (The public will be covering shortfalls.)
  • "The Cavs have covered 100 percent of all operating, maintenance, repair, and capital expenses for the arena's operating life to date." = (The public has covered all of the expensive stuff, via the Sin Tax.)
  • "The Cavs will not be competing for corporate events." = (The Cavs will be aggressively competing for corporate events.)
  • "The Q generated $245 million in direct spending in 2016." = (lol) 
And so on. 

So when Len Komoroski says that the Q Deal is the best deal for taxpayers in the country — the most public-friendly! — we know what he means.

Yet here's Quinn: There was a big movement to get it on the ballot to stop it that ultimately fizzled. And one of the reasons it did is because the Cavs, accurately, were able to show people that there's no better deal on an arena in this country for the taxpayer than this. You can argue whether or not you like any public funding, but as these deals go, Cleveland has a better one than anybody else.

Bona's hesitation to use the word "outrage" is surely a function of his sources, but the opposition was indeed overly strong.  It was, as I say, the most energetic and well-organized challenge to established power in recent history. And those who earnestly opposed the deal are still incensed about it. It will remain a hot-button issue, and a very dark mark on legislators' resumes, for years to come. And for the record, it will remain the clearest and ugliest example of the "business as usual" that new Cleveland reformers, of the sort who attended this week's Cleveland Rising Summit, will ostensibly try to disrupt, (if indeed they intend to be portrayed as caring about equity.)

Quinn's observation that people aren't "stepping up" to protest the renovated arena or reviving the old arguments is asinine. The opposition was sabotaged and the renovations happened. The money was spent. The damage was done. We could all use our finite energy and resources protesting the War in Vietnam, too, but new wars will be waged while we do. Many of the tireless activists who gathered signatures for the Q referendum went on to organize around lead and forced the city to act after decades of apathy. Others are now organizing to stop the inhumanity at the Cuyahoga County Jail, (which, for the record, intrepid cleveland.com reporters Courtney Astolfi and Adam Ferrise covered with more precision and perseverance than anyone else in town). The trick now is not protesting the arena, but demonstrating why and how the deal was perpetrated, to try like hell to prevent it from happening again.

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