Voters may not get say on Hens stadium

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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The two most important decisions appear to be made: Where to put a new Mud Hens stadium, and how to pay for it.

But there’s still one big choice for Lucas County commissioners to make: Should they ask voters for their approval?

If the commissioners do not put the issue before voters, they risk political damage from residents who do not want a new stadium. But if they do, they risk delaying the stadium’s opening for a year or more – or even killing the project.

“We’ve got to be cautious,” Commissioner Harry Barlos said. “We could end up with no stadium altogether.”

The commissioners have not made up their minds. But if recent history is any guide, city governments across the country have been willing to act without seeking voter approval first.

County commissioners, city councils, and mayors do lots of things that some citizens object to without putting the issues up for a vote.

There was no vote to renovate the Valentine Theatre, to help fund a new Jeep plant, or to help Owens-Corning or HCR ManorCare find new headquarters downtown, all projects that will cost taxpayers millions of dollars. City and county leaders pressed ahead on their own, believing that the projects were in Toledo’s best interests.

“It’s a question of leadership,” Mr. Barlos said. “There are some things that are good for a community and don’t necessarily have to be put in front of the voters first.”

But, in the case of the Mud Hens stadium, there is an added factor. Last year, voters were given the chance to approve funding for a stadium and soundly rejected it.

In May, 1998, voters were asked to raise the county sales tax 0.25 per cent for 35 months, to pay for about two-thirds of the stadium’s $37 million cost. Voters said “no” by a nearly 60-40 margin.

Now, Cleveland consultant Tom Chema has come up with a plan to pay for the stadium with only $14 million from county coffers. The remainder would come from other sources, such as state money and corporate sponsorships.

But the county commissioners are unclear on whether they want to ask voters for permission to go ahead. Sandy Isenberg, commission president, said that she would consider “a vote of confidence” from county residents. But she also said, “the community elected us to make decisions, and sometimes we have to be able to make very difficult decisions.”

The third commissioner, Bill Copeland, said he is leaning toward asking for a vote.

“It’s more of a political decision than anything else,” Mr. Chema said. “There’s no need to put it up for a vote, legally. The commissioners could approve it on their own. It’s up to them.”

A stadium and arena boom has taken place in Ohio in the 1990s. Cleveland has built facilities for the Indians, Cavaliers, and Browns. Cincinnati is building homes for the Reds and Bengals. Columbus has completed a stadium for soccer’s Columbus Crew, and a downtown arena for a new professional hockey team is on the way.

The new facilities in the Three C’s alone reflect an investment of well over $1 billion.

In each case, cities tried to get approval from voters. Cleveland and Cincinnati succeeded; Columbus’s effort failed, and both stadiums ended up being financed privately.

But the stadiums in Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati are for major league teams, and they came with major league price tags.

The new facilities for the Cincinnati Reds and Bengals will cost more than $544 million. The new Browns Stadium in Cleveland cost $283 million. Jacobs Field and Gund Arena in Cleveland together cost $344 million. Coming up with that sort of money without asking voters for a tax increase is a tall order, and cities did just that in each case.

But the trend in minor league stadiums is toward not going to voters.

In the last six years, six of the 14 teams in the Mud Hens’s International League have built ballparks. None of them got approval from voters in the process.

Some issued revenue bonds or paid in cash. Some established special taxes on tickets or on food and beverage sales at the stadium. But in each case, city leaders paid for the stadium without asking voters.

In Ohio’s smaller cities, Akron built a stadium for the Double-A Akron Aeros in its downtown for $31 million. The city didn’t ask voters for approval, and funded it by selling bonds.

Dayton is building a stadium for its new Dayton Dragons, who will begin play in April. The city issued almost $12.2 million in bonds to pay for construction.

“We didn’t have to go to the voters legally, and we didn’t,” said Ken Betche, Dayton’s accounting and treasury manager.

If Lucas County commissioners decide to put the issue of a new Mud Hens stadium before voters, the likeliest election date would be March 7, 2000, when Ohio voters will be making their choices in the presidential primaries.

But Mr. Barlos has said he worries whether stadium supporters would have enough time to coordinate a solid campaign by then. And if voters turn down a stadium deal yet again at the polls, it may become almost impossible ever to get a new ballpark.

“If this issue lost, because of misinformation or whatever, that would probably be our only opportunity to proceed with a ballpark for more than a year,” Mr. Barlos said. “Normally, I would be the first person to say it needs to go to a vote. But if it fails this time, we can’t just come back again and ask one more time.”

Mr. Barlos and Ms. Isenberg mentioned that, if commissioners want input from the public, their goal could be accomplished through a series of public hearings rather than a vote.

In central Ohio, the Columbus Crew learned the hard way about the will of the people. In 1997, voters in Franklin County were asked to approve a temporary sales tax increase to pay for an arena and stadium downtown. The Crew, a major league soccer team, was to be the primary tenant in the downtown stadium.

But voters turned down the issue, 56 per cent to 44 per cent.

A few months later, the Crew tried to move to the Columbus suburb of Dublin. The team’s owner, Lamar Hunt, offered to pay for the stadium’s construction if Dublin paid for a few infrastructure improvements around the location. Dublin city government approved the deal, but opponents got enough signatures to force the issue to the ballot, where it was defeated.

Burned twice by the public in less than a year, Mr. Hunt found another location in north Columbus and built his own stadium, at a cost of more than $28 million.

“More and more, you’re seeing stadium ballots go down,” said Jeff Wuerth, director of public relations for the Crew. “People have a negative view of sports these days because they see rich players and rich owners and don’t think they should be asked to pay for a new stadium for them.”

Sylvania Mayor Craig Stough said that the commissioners will have to decide how they’ll pay for the county’s portion of the stadium’s cost before choosing whether to put it on the ballot. Mr. Chema’s plan calls for the county to provide $4 million in cash up front and issue $10 million in bonds.

“If they can find a way to pay off all those bonds without taking money away from some other source, then they can go ahead without the voters,” he said. If thecommissioners came up with a way, such as a ticket tax, to let stadium revenues pay off the bonds, he said he would support it.

“But if they just take money from another project and put it into this one, then it’s just a way to get around the ‘no’ vote last year, and then they should put it before the voters again,” Mr. Stough said.

Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner has come out in support of avoiding the voters. “I don’t think it’s really necessary,” he said. “The commissioners are elected to make decisions like this.”

His stance is not surprising because Mr. Finkbeiner has been one of the stadium’s biggest boosters from the start. At one point, he even talked about changing the Toledo city charter to allow him and the city council to fund a stadium without seeking voter approval.

Maumee Mayor Tim Wagener said he wants the issue taken to a vote. The Mud Hens currently play at Ned Skeldon Stadium in Maumee, and a new stadium in downtown Toledo means Maumee would lose one of its most famous businesses.

“I’d love to see it go to the voters because I could vote ‘no,’ and Maumee would have the biggest voter turnout possible,” said Mr. Wagener, who lives six houses away from Ned Skeldon Stadium. “You don’t ask voters if the city wants to buy a new fire truck, because that’s an essential city service. But baseball stadiums? I think people have a right to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.'”

Still, Mr. Wagener doesn’t think county residents will get that chance.

“I don’t think they’ll put it before the voters,” he said. “I think they’ll find a way to pay for it and get it done. I wish it was different.”