Mayor opposes east side ballpark site

By Joshua Benton and Jack Baessler
Blade Staff Writers

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Putting a new Mud Hens ballpark in East Toledo is not the best choice for the city, Mayor Carty Finkbeiner said yesterday.

And the city’s top economic development official said a stadium on the site proposed by Mud Hens board members is “just not possible.”

“I have always thought, and I continue to feel, that the best location for the new stadium for the Toledo Mud Hens is downtown Toledo, within the warehouse district,” the mayor said in a statement yesterday.

Among the reasons: the East Toledo proposal would require demolition of the behemoth Toledo Edison Acme generating station, which he said could add up to $12 million to the stadium costs. Barry Broome, the city’s director of development, said the demolition costs make a stadium there impossibile.

The Mud Hens’ board of directors went before the Lucas County commissioners yesterday to present its latest plan for a new ballpark. It would place a riverfront stadium on a site along Front Street, on property owned by Toledo Edison but available for free to the city.

Commissioners expressed concerns similar to Mr. Finkbeiner’s about the cost of site preparations.

Ed Bergsmark, president of the Mud Hens board of directors, estimated that the cost of a new East Toledo stadium would be about $16 million, with 72 per cent of the funding coming from private sources.

The Mud Hens play in Maumee at Ned Skeldon Stadium, considered one of the worst in minor league baseball.

If the Mud Hens move to East Toledo, they might join another new sporting venue. An official with the Toledo Storm said the team’s owners might build a new arena rather than renovate the Sports Arena.

“Part of the process of dusting off our renovation plans is to at least look at other options, and that is, what it would cost to build a new facility,” said Gary Wyse, arena general manager. “At this point, we’re just talking about it. It’s really just conversation.”

Mr. Wyse said the renovations, if carried out, could start by summer, 1999, and be completed by fall, 2000.

Mr. Finkbeiner has supported building a ballpark in the warehouse district to spur downtown development. But in May, Lucas County voters soundly rejected a temporary sales tax plan to pay for a stadium there. The price tag for the warehouse district site ballooned to $37 million when the cost of land for parking spaces was added.

Mr. Finkbeiner criticized the new proposal, saying the $16 million estimate does not include the cost of preparing the site – including demolition of the Acme plant.

The proposal “seriously underestimates the total project cost,” he said.

Toledo Edison offered to donate the plant and surrounding land to the city in 1997 in exchange for the city’s approval of Toledo Edison’s merger creating FirstEnergy Corp. The utility offered to pay up to $2.3 million in redevelopment costs.

About $300,000 is reserved for studies to determine whether the land requires environmental work. Those studies are being conducted, officials said.

Mr. Broome said the city is waiting for the environmental studies to be concluded before determining whether the city will accept the donation offer.

But he said too many obstacles exist at the site for a stadium there to be possible.

He said a Toledo Edison electric substation on the site powers all of downtown Toledo. A stadium using just Toledo Edison land would require that the substation be relocated at a multimillion-dollar cost to the city.

Another problem would be the hulking Acme plant itself, which Mr. Broome said would have to be stripped of its contents before being demolished.

“There’s a whole city in there,” Mr. Broome said.

Those problems, along with possible pollution issues, make a stadium on the site an impossibility, he said.

“The $2 million from Toledo Edison wouldn’t come close to the total cost to prepare that land,” he said. “That is not a developable site for a stadium. You couldn’t do it.”

But Mr. Bergsmark said he believes demolition and cleanup will not reach the estimates the mayor projects.

“I would be flabbergasted if it cost $10 million,” he said. Government funding sources often can be tapped to pay for the cost of cleaning up urban eyesores, he said.

Securing funds to buy land and the associated costs of relocating businesses often is an expensive proposition, as the city found in acquiring land for expansion of the Jeep plant.

A Toledo Edison spokesman said last night that the company has never estimated how much it would cost to prepare the land for other development.

The East Toledo site has a number of things going for it, including parking and easy access from the Maumee River crossing that will replace the Craig Memorial Bridge.

Officials never adequately addressed the problem of parking for a stadium in the warehouse district, Mr. Bergsmark said.

“There was never really a plan that was developed for parking that maintained it as free or af ford able,” he said.

“I think as you go around, that is the strongest issue. People are not going to walk three or four blocks with little toddlers,” Mr. Bergsmark said.

Mr. Broome said a downtown site in the tough-to-market warehouse district would do much more to spur economic development than a riverfront site.

“I think the stadium project loses a lot of its economic impact if it’s not in the central downtown area,” Mr. Broome said.

“Developing riverfront property is not a challenge. We’ve got more people interested in developing riverfront property than we can afford,” Mr. Broome said.

But the mayor said he liked at least one element of the team’s East Toledo proposal: its heavy reliance on private funding.

The Mud Hens board believes it can raise $11.5 million in private funds in 12 months to build the riverfront stadium that was introduced yesterday to Lucas County commissioners.

Of the $16 million Mr. Bergsmark said the stadium would cost, $4.5 million would come from public sources, including $2 million from the county and $2.5 million from the state.

The remainder would come from a variety of private sources, including selling naming rights to the stadium, leasing luxury suites, and selling commemorative bricks.

Under the proposal, the county would own the stadium, and the Mud Hens would provide a portion of their annual earnings to the county, Mr. Bergsmark said.

It’s the format that exists with the stadium in Maumee that the Mud Hens lease from the county, he said.

Commissioner Mark Pietrykowski said after the presentation that the proposal appeared to be well thought-out. He called the fund-raising provisions “ambitious.”

The stadium the Mud Hens use in Maumee has insufficient parking and will need infrastructure improvements if the stadium were enlarged and renovated, he said.

Sandy Isenberg, president of the county commissioners, said much information is needed before the county will provide support, including general obligation bonds.

The proposed East Toledo site near the Toledo Sports Arena is in a growing entertainment district along Main Street.

Two years ago, the Sports Arena’s owners announced plans for a $17.5-million renovation. But an ownership battle over the Toledo Storm hockey team delayed those plans.

Last month, the battles ended when the arena’s owners, V/Gladieux Enterprises, bought the Storm. Arena officials are planning to go ahead with the long-delayed renovations if they don’t decide to build a replacement arena.