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Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Cleveland City Council Begins Depressing Progressive Field Deal Ratification Process

Posted By on Tue, Oct 5, 2021 at 12:03 PM

This stone alone has cost taxpayers $3 million. - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • This stone alone has cost taxpayers $3 million.

Cleveland City Council met Monday afternoon to begin the process of ratifying a handout of $117 million over the next 15 years to the Dolan family and the Cleveland Guardians.

The $117 million will be the city contribution in an elaborate cooperative agreement announced last month that includes $285 million in total public dollars. This is money that's framed as a necessary investment in the preservation and enhancement of Progressive Field to secure the Guardians' presence in Cleveland for an additional 15 years.



Just as in the Q Deal hearings of 2017, City Council is likely to greenlight the deal as constructed — that is to say, a deal constructed in private, without public input of any kind, and presented with only general notions of what the massive subsidies will be used to pay for. Paying this ransom to billionaire owners is simply the cost of having a pro team in your city, citizens are instructed to internalize.

Familiar lines of argument for and against the deal were voiced by members of council Monday, in what Council President and Mayoral candidate Kevin Kelley described as the first of several hearings on the deal. Though it was initially on the agenda for a vote at Monday's evening meeting, this was likely an error. Kelley assured his colleagues that there would be ample opportunity to question team representatives about the particulars of the deal's finances and community benefits in the coming weeks.

Gateway Economic Development Corporation Chairman Ken Silliman, Mayor Frank Jackson's former Chief of Staff, presented the broad strokes of the deal to council's finance committee. This included the various revenue streams being cobbled together to get to $8 million per year from the city's coffers. That'll include $3.2 million annually from a sports facility reserve created as part of the Q Deal, $2 million from parking garage revenue, an estimated $2.55 million from Guardians admission tax revenue, $333,000 from naming rights on the Gateway East garage, (assuming some corporation buys these naming rights), and $350,000 in "unspecified" money.

Councilman Mike Polensek, who was one of the main council opponents of the Q Deal in 2017, gave nearly the identical speech he gave when the Q Deal was first presented to council. He said that the pro teams had systematically lied to legislators (and by extension, Clevelanders) to force deals through city and county council. He even recalled a conversation he'd had with an unnamed businessman in which he (Polensek) questioned the figure of 28,000 jobs promised as part of the Gateway project. The businessman joked with Polensek that that's just what they'd said to get the public money, an admission that didn't seem to bother anyone else at the table.

Polensek said Silliman and the team reps should be prepared to answer pointed questions when they came to present to council, because he planned to be very clear about just how bad things have gotten in Cleveland, including, notably, the poverty rate.

Councilman Brian Kazy also said he suspected the deal would be a "hard sell" for Cleveland voters, given the profit margins of the team and, by contrast, the poor economic condition of the city in the wake of the pandemic. 

This opposition was tempered by the scripted softball questions and clarifications from reliably pro-deal councilmembers. Kevin Kelley interrupted Silliman early on, for example, to stress the public ownership of Progressive Field and clarified that if the team were to leave Cleveland, the maintenance of the facility would fall entirely on the city's shoulders. He trotted out the same line he likely gave to councilman Blaine Griffin in supporting the 60-year Tax Increment Financing agreement for the Flats East Bank development project and intoned that "there is a cost to doing nothing."

Brian Mooney, who represents the West Boulevard area, chimed in to say that he viewed these deals kind of like tax abatements — as unpleasant, but necessary, tools to promote economic development. His shrugging attitude was that this was simply the way the world worked and there wasn't much Cleveland could do about it. 

Councilman Blaine Griffin said he hoped the discussion could move away from how the city is enriching billionaire owners and toward how the city would continue to benefit economically from the team's presence. (The team owners and their propagandists no doubt feel the same!) He said he knew there were midsize cities — San Antonio, Nashville, Indianapolis — that were setting up commissions to try to lure the Guardians away from Cleveland and, in that context, felt the deal was prudent.  

In response to questions about the length of the lease (15 years) and the size of the public contribution ($285 million), Ken Silliman said that council should compare the deal not to cities with longer terms and small contributions but to those where a new stadium was built with lots of public money, in which light the Cleveland deal seemed downright cheap.

"By investing in our existing asset, and by keeping it contemporary," he said, "we are maximizing the likelihood that the city and county will not have to tackle a billion dollar facility."

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