Downtown favored for Hens’ new park; Warehouse district site endorsed by study

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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Lucas County should build a $37 million Toledo Mud Hens baseball stadium in downtown Toledo’s Warehouse District, a highly anticipated study, to be released today, recommends.

The study indicates that a majority of the funding to build the stadium would come from other than local government sources.

The study, completed by Cleveland consultant Tom Chema, who was paid $180,000 in county money, recommends that the stadium be built between Huron, Monroe, St. Clair, and Washington streets.

County leaders appear ready to go along with the recommendations.

“We have the opportunity to do something really wonderful for downtown Toledo,” said Sandy Isenberg, president of the board of county commissioners. “I think this means the stadium will finally become reality.”

The report states that less than 40 per cent of the funding would be derived from local government.

Most of the cost would be borne by the state of Ohio and corporate funding.

“I don’t know if a city has ever had a week as good as Toledo has, with the Valentine Theatre opening and this news,” Mayor Carty Finkbeiner said.

In March, Mr. Chema was charged with determining the best location for a Mud Hens stadium, along with the best way to pay for it.

He was hired because city, county, and team leaders were unable to agree on either issue.

He and his company, Gateway Consulting Group, examined eight sites: the Mud Hens’ home, Ned Skeldon Stadium in Maumee; the Toledo Sports Arena site in East Toledo; a location along the west bank of the Maumee River near the Anthony Wayne Bridge, and five sites in the Warehouse District downtown.

His report, which will be presented to the Lucas County commissioners at their meeting today, recommends the Huron-Monroe-St. Clair-Washington site because the county controls much of the land on the site.

The site would provide a nice view of the downtown skyline and be a link between the Warehouse District and the central business district. Superior Street would have to be closed between Monroe and Washington.

“This location offers the best opportunity for using a new ballpark as a catalyst for economic development and urban revitalization,” the report states.

The Sports Arena site was rejected as too far removed from downtown to create any economic benefit, as was the Maumee site.

The other Warehouse District sites were rejected because of various construction problems, parking issues, or access concerns.

The Gateway study does not outline a specific budget for the 10,000-seat stadium, but it does offer an outline of where money should come from and where it would go. Of the project’s $37 million price tag, $4 million would be a Lucas County cash contribution, with $10 million resulting from a county bond issue.

The sale of stadium naming rights and corporate suites would raise about $7 million, and the Mud Hens would issue $7 million in bonds.

Mr. Chema expects the state of Ohio to contribute $6 million to the project, a figure in line with the money state lawmakers have dedicated to stadiums in other Ohio cities.

Since it requires no new taxes, Mr. Chema’s proposed funding plan could be put in place without seeking approval from the voters.

“I really don’t see any particular need to go to the voters,” Mr. Chema said, “unless commissioners decide it’s the right thing to do politically.”

That could be a blessing for county leaders who want a stadium built. Lucas County voters soundly rejected a ballot issue in May, 1998, that would have raised money for the stadium through a temporary sales tax.

A poll released on Monday, conducted for The Blade by Louis Harris and Associates of New York City, showed that 59 per cent of registered voters favor building a baseball stadium, while 32 per cent oppose it. Downtown Toledo was the most popular potential site of those surveyed.

But 80 per cent of those surveyed said they do not want county commissioners to build a ballpark without getting approval from voters.

Mr. Chema cautioned that putting the issue before voters could push back the stadium’s opening. Without going to the voters, it could be ready for opening day in 2002. Going through the process of getting voter approval likely would push that back a year, he said.

Ms. Isenberg said that a delay is a concern of hers – “We have a lot of momentum going downtown,” she said – but she said that the commissioners might still want to have a “vote of confidence” from county residents.

Commissioner Bill Copeland said he is leaning toward asking voters. “I have never really liked bypassing the voters.”

Commissioner Harry Barlos said he expects the commissioners to make decisions within the next two weeks on Mr. Chema’s site and funding recommendations, as well as whether to put the issue before voters.

He said he is worried that if the issue were rushed onto the ballot for the March 7 election, pro-stadium forces might not have the time to do a good job promoting it to voters.

“If we put it on the ballot and it loses, we just keep losing more time,” Mr. Barlos, a former Maumee mayor, said.

Parking has been the most contentious issue about potential Warehouse District stadium sites. At the Mud Hens’ home in Maumee, fans can park for free in 1,400 spaces at the stadium; some have said they would shy away from paying for a spot downtown.

But the Gateway study goes to some lengths to dispute that claim. The distance from the farthest parking space at Ned Skeldon Stadium to the ballpark’s main entrance is one-quarter mile, the study says. Within a quarter-mile – or about four city blocks – of the Warehouse District site, 6,623 parking spaces are available.

The study said 1,693 spaces are within two blocks of the ballpark site, and 9,884 spaces are within six blocks.

Local government, mostly through the Downtown Parking Authority, control about 2,000 of those spaces, Mr. Chema said. That means that private parking-lot owners won’t be able to charge exorbitant amounts for parking, because the parking authority will be able to charge low prices.

“We’ll be able to apply some downward pressure to the price,” Mr. Chema said. “I doubt anyone will pay more than two bucks.”

Last month, the county commissioners spent $106,500 to buy options on most of the property within the Huron-Monroe-St. Clair-Washington area, setting off speculation that that was the area Mr. Chema would be recommending. He said that the county is still negotiating with two property owners within the site area.

Mr. Chema said that while some historic buildings will have to be torn down to make way for the stadium, he is recommending that several buildings along St. Clair Street be left standing and integrated into the stadium design.

Under its charter, the city of Toledo is not allowed to spend public money on a sports facility without a vote, but Mr. Finkbeiner said the city will be able to make infrastructure improvements in the area around the stadium.

He said that next year, Monroe and Washington streets will be converted to two-way, in part to help traffic flow throughout the stadium area.

Ms. Isenberg’s enthusiasm for the stadium project is a relatively recent development. In an interview in January, she listed her top priorities for the new year: a 911 communication center, a juvenile justice detention center, and a new 6th 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.'”

But now, she affectionately calls the new stadium “Big Luke” and speaks excitedly and at length about the downtown renaissance it could provide.

“I guess I really got the fever,” she said. “When we hired Tom Chema, that added a certain excitement to the project. But one of the neatest things was when I went to Akron this summer” to see that city’s new downtown baseball stadium, Canal Park.

“I just fell in love with the stadium. It’s so open and inviting. I just sat around there with a big smile on my face, thinking about how great it would look plopped down right in the middle of Toledo, with people from all over Lucas County in the seats. It’s just exciting.”