Mayor conditionally will OK east-side site for Mud Hens; Ice arena, SeaGate must link

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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In a remarkable reversal, Mayor Carty Finkbeiner is now willing to put a Mud Hens stadium in East Toledo – but only if an ice arena is built downtown, attached to SeaGate Centre.

The blockbuster proposal ties together many of the last year’s most controversial issues: the location of a Mud Hens stadium, the proposed construction of two competing ice arenas, and the push for a downtown health club.

And it does it in a way that could please a diverse group of political constituencies, from East Toledo politicians to downtown advocates.

Yesterday the mayor sent letters to more than three dozen city and county leaders, with drawings of a “vision as to what this might look like.”

The vision has two parts:

* A Mud Hens stadium on the site of the Toledo Sports Arena on Main Street on the East Toledo riverfront.

* An ice arena, bounded by Monroe, Washington, Summit, and Superior streets, and attached to SeaGate by a walking bridge over Monroe.

In his letter, Mr. Finkbeiner emphasized that the proposal needs more study. On Thursday, Sandy Isenberg, president of the Lucas County commissioners, said she will ask consultant Tom Chema to study the possibility of a downtown ice arena. He has been appointed to lead the baseball stadium project.

But Mr. Finkbeiner said it is important that the city’s sports facility plans extend well beyond simply building a stadium. He said they must meet “the needs of the SeaGate Centre, the Toledo Mud Hens, and the Sports Arena.”

“I believe that Commissioner Isenberg has projected a vision that meets the needs of all three entities, as well as baseball fans, hockey fans, conventioneers, and businesses serving the general public on both the east and west banks of the Maumee River,” he wrote.

The mayor’s vision, at this point, does not include any details about how much two facilities will cost or where the money will come from.

But it will solve one nagging problem that has been haunting both facilities’ future: the cost of land acquisition.

To assemble the warehouse-district site that Mr. Finkbeiner has long favored for the Mud Hens stadium would mean buying up land from more than a dozen property owners.

Their reluctance to sell at a low price could add more than $10 million to the stadium project, city leaders have said.

And the previous East Toledo Mud Hens proposal would put the stadium on the site of the Acme power station, an old industrial plant that could cost more than $10 million to tear down.

The latest proposal Mr. Finkbeiner made avoids those problems. The proposed arena site is on land owned by Lucas County and used primarily for parking.

The proposed stadium site is owned by Tim Gladieux, owner of the Sports Arena.

SeaGate officials – who have long pushed for an expansion – were excited by the possibility of an arena next door.

“We could use it for exhibits, rallies, anything,” said Jim Donnelly, president of the Greater Toledo Convention and Visitors Bureau, which operates the convention center. “It would be a big draw for downtown and would really make it a vibrant place again.”

The new arena effectively would replace the 52-year-old Sports Arena, which received a blow last month when Rossford officials announced plans to build a $48 million arena-amphitheater complex in the suburbs. Rossford officials are assembling the project’s financing package.

Mr. Gladieux immediately announced plans to build a modern Sports Arena to compete with Rossford’s, but he has not announced a site or financing plans.

Yesterday Mr. Gladieux said he was “intrigued and excited” by the idea of an arena attached to the convention center and said he could be convinced to abandon his own East Toledo construction plans if Mr. Chema says the downtown arena makes sense.

“There’s a lot of studying left to be done. But if it looks like a good idea, we would certainly commit our resources to it,” he said.

He said the arena could be a “public-private partnership” of an undetermined sort. Mr. Finkbeiner made a similar statement in his letter. Both men said Mr. Chema’s guidance would determine what sort of development will be planned.

Mr. Chema did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The mayor’s decision to push an East Toledo site for the Mud Hens stadium is a reversal of his earlier stances.

For years – ever since it became clear that the county was interested in building a home for the Mud Hens – Mr. Finkbeiner has been adamant that it should be built in downtown’s warehouse district. Only with a downtown stadium, he said, could the city center be revitalized.

But in December, team officials announced they want the ballpark built in East Toledo along the Maumee River near the Sports Arena. The mayor repeatedly said an east-side site would be a bad choice, in large part because the Toledo Edison Acme plant would have to be torn down to make way for the stadium. That, the mayor said, would add millions of dollars to the project.

Putting the ballpark on the Sports Arena site eliminates that problem, but it could create a new one: the view from the seats. Instead of the downtown skyline vistas promised by the Acme site, the main view from the Sports Arena site would be of the Acme plant itself.

In a statement issued last night, Mr. Finkbeiner said he still prefers the warehouse-district site for a stadium if no arena is built. But swapping the arena and stadium sites is an “interesting possibility,” he wrote.

Another possibility, according to Mr. Gladieux and Mr. Donnelly: placing a downtown health club on the arena’s grounds. Mr. Donnelly said many convention hotels have health facilities and said putting one in the arena would be a “real added draw.”

“I could see where this would really breathe life back into downtown,” Mr. Gladieux said.

“I think it’s a good idea that warrants further study,” he said.

Mr. Donnelly said that a 12,000-seat arena attached to the convention center could cost in the area of $25 million to $30 million. The site on which it would sit is the equivalent of two standard downtown city blocks.

Sports economists have said that a market the size of Toledo could not support two new arenas. Mr. Donnelly said he thought that is probably true of freestanding arenas, but tying the downtown arena to the convention center provides instant benefits.

“The two could share staff, share equipment, marketing, personnel,” he said.

“There would be real synergies between the two,” he said.

Mr. Donnelly said the SeaGate is “at capacity right now” and needs to expand to attract larger conventions.

He said that SeaGate’s convention business alone could keep the attached arena in use for 40 to 50 days a year. That would be important because sports economists generally say that an arena needs to be in use 180 to 200 days a year to be profitable, and two arenas in the same market would be competing tooth and nail for events.

Mr. Gladieux estimated that the downtown arena could bring 1 million people downtown each year, causing spin-off business for bars, restaurants, and other downtown businesses.

Dr. Dennis Howard, a sports economist at the University of Oregon who studies arena and stadium construction, said that arenas tied into convention centers have done “a much better job” of creating spin-off economic development than stadiums.

“For a baseball game, people drive to the ballpark, go to the game, eat some hot dogs, and go home,” he said.

“Convention traffic brings in a lot of people who stay at hotels, eat at restaurants, drink at bars, and bring a lot of money into the community that wouldn’t otherwise be there.”

Mr. Chema has done dual arena/stadium projects before. He led the Gateway project in Cleveland, which led to the construction of Jacobs Field for baseball and Gund Arena for basketball. Both facilities suffered extreme cost overruns.

The mayor’s proposed arena site would require one bit of land acquisition for parking, but it is one that downtown advocates have been pushing for years.

The arena site sketches put parking on the block bounded by Superior, Huron, Washington, and Monroe streets – a block that houses four adult entertainment bars.

“I think it would be great if we could use this to clean up that area,” Mr. Donnelly said.