Turf battles led local officials to drop ball on Mud Hens park

By Joshua Benton and Mike Wilkinson
Blade Staff Writers

Page A1

It was the first time – but not the last – that Toledo’s leadership made a promise it could not keep regarding the Mud Hens’ stadium.

Amid fanfare and with the promise of results, more than two dozen local leaders gathered in November, 1994, to proclaim that within eight months they would find a home for Toledo’s minor league baseball team.

Now, after more than four years and countless bitter exchanges, a stadium is no closer to completion. At least four possible sites and three potential ways to pay for them have been proposed, and there is no agreement on any of it.

“They should have been breaking ground on this by spring,” Ray Kest, Lucas County treasurer, said yesterday.

Instead, city and county leaders reached a minor consensus late last week: The county will hire an experienced stadium consultant to conduct another study. They say the move to get Cleveland attorney Thomas Chema on board is a sign of progress.

But his hiring will do little to undo the years of bickering that have caused repeated delays. He will be profiting – to the tune of more than $15,000 a month – from the leadership’s inability to agree on anything.

“I really think we look foolish, because it seems like up until today, nobody has seemed to be working together,” said Rob Ludeman, District 2 councilman.

Among the biggest reasons for the setbacks:

* Lucas County Commissioner Sandy Isenberg has said the stadium is just not a priority. Considering that the county owns the Mud Hens’ current home and would be the agency building the new ballpark, that’s a serious hurdle for stadium proponents.

* County residents have not rallied behind a stadium downtown. Polls have shown they don’t want to spent much money for a ballpark, and the current Maumee location is more convenient for many of them than downtown would be. And the one time county voters had a chance to give the project their approval, they rejected it by more than 15,000 votes.

* The men and women with the most power – Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, Ms. Isenberg, and the Mud Hens board – have spent much of their time bickering among themselves. An astonishing array of spats, from stadium naming rights to political ego clashes, have drained energy and unity from the push.

“Jealousies, turf protection,” Mr. Kest said, are at the root of the standstill.

Now the stadium – projected in 1996 to be the site of baseball games by 2000 – won’t be built until at least 2002.

Last month, area officials were stunned by the news coming out of Rossford, a town of just 6,000 about four miles south of downtown. There, officials announced they had put together a package to build a $48-million arena-amphitheater complex near I-75 and the Ohio Turnpike. A minor league hockey team from upstate New York is expected to move into the new arena in 2000.

While the project had been in the works for more than seven years and still isn’t completed, Toledo civic leaders were amazed at the ease at which their suburban neighbors seemed to be moving forward with their plans.

Without the announcement of Rossford’s grand plan, Mr. Ludeman said city and county officials still would be at odds.

“I think they’d still be fighting,” Mr. Ludeman said. “Unfortunately, that’s the way things are in city politics right now.”

Even state leaders took note of the lack of a local consensus. When the state’s capital budget was passed in November, no money was allocated for the stadium. The reason: lawmakers said the county gave no signal that it really wanted the project.

But on Friday, Mr. Finkbeiner and Ms. Isenberg seemed to reach some sort of agreement on one issue. Both are promoting a new “vision” of a baseball stadium in East Toledo and an ice arena in downtown, attached to the SeaGate Centre, the downtown convention center.

Mayor Finkbeiner, after years of chiding Ms. Isenberg, hailed her as having “projected a vision.”

But that vision, like so many other reports, commissions, and proposals, cannot disguise the fact that the team won’t be coming downtown anytime soon. Years of infighting have pushed the project back.

For example:

* In October, 1995, Ms. Isenberg chided Mr. Finkbeiner for mailing requests for proposals to 37 stadium consultants across the country, saying she wondered whether the public even wanted a stadium.

Under the city charter, no city funds can go toward the construction of a stadium without a vote of the people.

* In May, after voters rejected a sales tax hike that would have paid for a stadium, Ms. Isenberg said she no longer wanted Mr. Finkbeiner to be a leader in the stadium effort. She said Mr. Finkbeiner’s high profile hurt the levy’s chances with suburban voters.

Issue 9, which proposed a quarter-cent sales tax increase to pay for a downtown stadium, was crushed in most suburbs. Overall, nearly 60 per cent of voters in Lucas County rejected the levy.

* Less than a month ago, Ms. Isenberg lashed out at the mayor again for offering to sell naming rights to the new stadium to DaimlerChrysler officials. The commissioner said that the naming rights weren’t Mr. Finkbeiner’s to sell.

“The audacity of your offering `naming rights’ to a Lucas County facility is beyond comprehension,” she wrote in a letter to the mayor.

In addition, team leaders have traded barbs with both city and county leaders.

While the city’s top business and political leaders have been near unanimous in pushing for a downtown site, city residents have been a bit more skeptical.

Polls have regularly shown a reluctance to spend public dollars on new stadiums.

And Lucas County is not just Toledo. The county has 130,000 residents outside the city limits, not to mention the thousands of Toledoans who live closer to the team’s current Maumee site than they do to downtown. And historically, those suburbanites vote more often than those closer to downtown.

The newest appointment to the three-member Lucas County commission is Harry Barlos, a former Maumee mayor who has said he wants to look at keeping the team at its Maumee location. He also suggested consider the construction of a stadium in Monclova Township.

Sports economists who have studied new stadiums are nearly unanimous that they do not have the broad economic impact that city leaders promise before construction. The Mud Hens are the Triple-A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers.

Much of the conflict between Mr. Finkbeiner and Ms. Isenberg has stemmed from the fact that they serve different political constituencies and have viewed the project with different priorities.

Mr. Finkbeiner has repeatedly called a stadium “the most important project for downtown’s revitalization” and considers it perhaps his administration’s top priority after the new Jeep plant under construction in Toledo.

Ms. Isenberg – who faced no opposition in her re-election campaign in November and who is elected by both Toledoans and suburbanites – doesn’t see the stadium as nearly as important.

In an interview in January, she listed her top priorities for the new year: a 911 communications center, a juvenile justice detention center, and a new Sixth District Court of Appeals building.

“Those are, in fact, priorities,” she said. “Those issues come way ahead of a Mud Hens stadium. The Mud Hens stadium is not a priority. It’s an `also.”‘

Without any consensus from local leaders, the county commissioners have decided to hire Mr. Chema to lead the project. He led the push for Jacobs Field and Gund Arena in Cleveland by working quietly behind the scenes, and local officials hope he’ll be able to do the same in Toledo. Mr. Finkbeiner had advocated bringing Mr. Chema in on the project as far back as 1995.

At least four sites are being considered: the warehouse district at the south end of downtown, the East Toledo riverfront, along I-475 in Monclova Township, and the current location.

And at the moment, at least three funding proposals are competing, one each from the Mud Hens, the city, and Mr. Kest.

Mr. Kest hopes Mr. Chema can cut through the confusion and achieve some sort of consensus. “Hiring Chema will stop the infighting,” he said.

Mr. Chema has said he thinks he can get more than $5 million in state funding lined up and promises to find financing, choose a site, and develop community support – all in seven to 12 months.

But that, of course, was the unkept promise of the Toledo Regional Sports Facility Committee when it met on Nov. 10, 1994. It’s something local leaders have been promising for almost five years.

Blade senior staff writers Michael D. Sallah and Homer Brickey contributed to this report.