Jacobs Field planner to lead Hens project

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 1

The man behind Jacobs Field in Cleveland, who believes downtowns are the natural sites for new ballparks, will be put in charge of the Mud Hens stadium project, the Lucas County commissioners said yesterday.

Commissioner-designate Harry Barlos said the county is ready to hire Cleveland lawyer Thomas V. Chema to be the Mud Hens project coordinator. Mr. Barlos said he hopes that will help stop the political infighting that has plagued the project for the last year.

“It’s time to get to work,” he said during a taping of The Editors television program. “The swords have to be put down to allow Mr. Chema to proceed.”

Mr. Chema is president of the Gateway Consulting Group, which has done work on stadiums and arenas across the country.

He said he prefers putting them in downtowns, not in the suburbs. “That would be my predisposition,” he said. “You can never say 100 per cent of the time that that’s what ought to happen. Every community is different. But I can tell you that my predisposition is toward downtown sites, because I have seen how valuable they can be.”

The Mud Hens play in Maumee. Toledo city officials have been pushing for the new stadium to be put downtown.

Sandy Isenberg, president of the commissioners, said discussions with Mr. Chema began in January, and that a vote to approve hiring him could be taken as soon as next week.

“He’s got a track record you can look at,” she said. “He’ll bring a lot of experience and expertise.”

Mayor Carty Finkbeiner was pleased by the potential hire. “I am excited and delighted,” he said in a statement. “He is a highly respect ed professional with experience at Jacobs Field in Cleveland. I enthusiastically applaud the county commissioners.”

Ms. Isenberg said that Mr. Chema’s contract with the county is still under consideration. His proposal, sent to the county Tuesday, calls for a $15,000-a-month retainer plus expenses.

Commissioner Bill Copeland said he has not yet discussed Mr. Chema with his colleagues, but said he will support their decision to hire him. Mr. Barlos, the clerk of courts, is expected to be sworn in as a commissioner next week to fill the seat left vacant by Mark Pietrykowski’s election as an appeals court judge.

In 1989, then-Gov. Richard Celeste tapped Mr. Chema to gather Cleveland’s political forces behind construction of a downtown baseball stadium for the Indians. Mr. Chema quickly realized that to lure people downtown year round, he had to develop another facility for winter sports, so he added a new arena for the Cavaliers to the deal and called it the Gateway project.

Mr. Chema, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Harvard Law School, arranged the financing and promoted the project. Voters approved a new tax on alcohol and cigarettes to pay for about half the cost, and owners of the two sports teams kicked in the remainder.

Jacobs Field and Gund Arena have been successful, and often are cited as models for other cities seeking to use downtown sports venues for economic revitalization. But both were wildly over budget.

The baseball stadium ended up costing $176 million, not the $128 million projected when voters approved the tax. And Gund Arena’s cost shot up from $75 million to $148 million. He blamed much of the overruns on a push from local officials to speed up construction.

Since then, Mr. Chema has been involved in baseball stadium proposals for the San Francisco Giants, the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, and the San Diego Padres.

Mr. Chema stressed that the process of putting together the political and financial backing for a ballpark can be “very, very difficult.” He said that, if he is hired this month, a ballpark could be ready for play in the spring of 2002.

“I think there is an opportunity to do a public-public-private partnership with several different levels,” he said, adding that he would like city, county, and state support for the project.

Toledo’s charter prohibits the use of city money to build a stadium, but Mr. Chema may be able to help attract money from Columbus.

He is well connected in statewide Democratic Party circles. He served as executive director of the Ohio Lottery Commission in the early 1980s, then was chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio from 1985 to 1989. From 1990 to 1996, he chaired the Ohio Building Authority.

Even though Republicans hold every statewide office and control both houses of the legislature, Mr. Chema said he still has good relationships with officials in Columbus and hopes to get upward of $5 million in state assistance for the Mud Hens park.

“The precedent has been set with state money going to stadiums in other cities, like Cleveland, Cincinnati, and an arena in Columbus,” he said. “I think other parts of the state, like Dayton or Youngstown or Toledo, have a good chance to get a similar commitment.”

Ms. Isenberg was quick to say that Mr. Chema would have no policy-making role, but would only make recommendations to the commissioners. She emphasized that he will not report to any other political figures.

Ms. Isenberg has repeatedly criticized Mr. Finkbeiner for what she considers interference in the Mud Hens project.

Mr. Barlos made similar comments during The Editors.

“If the interference continues, that only hurts the project,” he said. “Carty needs to understand and trust the board of county commissioners to be fair on this issue.”

Mr. Barlos’s interview will be broadcast at 7 p.m. tomorrow on WGTE-TV, Channel 30, and at 12:30 p.m. Saturday on WBGU-TV, Channel 27.