Funding plan may be a hit for Mud Hens

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 1

Last year, the Toledo Mud Hens were losers on the field and off.

The team went 52-89, tying a record for the most losses ever in a Mud Hens season. And voters crushed a proposed tax increase to pay for a new stadium downtown.

But like a losing team regrouping for spring training, the Mud Hens tried again this week, proposing a stadium on the East Toledo riverfront.

Politicians have called the location a loser. But stadium supporters may have gained something more important than a site. They may have discovered a way to pay for a ballpark without asking voters to pick up most of the tab.

“This is a real shift to the private sector and away from tax dollars,” said Ed Bergs mark, chairman of the Toledo Mud Hens board of directors.

But the proposal’s financing package might be the only thing that survives from Monday’s announcement. That’s because the team’s controversial choice of a site has made local officials nervous. They say that tearing down an 80-year-old factory on the site could cost millions.

“I’ve heard it’ll take $15 [million] to $20 million to remediate that property,” said Sandy Isenberg, president of the board of Lucas County commissioners, which will make all site selection decisions. “If that’s the case, forget it.”

Team officials made their proposal Monday to the commissioners: You obtain this land in East Toledo, the site of the old Toledo Edison Acme plant. Give it to us for free and we’ll take care of building the stadium.

The team’s proposed financial package pegs the cost of a stadium – excluding site preparations – at $16 million. The team is asking for a $2 million grant from Lucas County and $2.5 million from the state’s capital budget. But the remaining 72 per cent of the cost of the stadium would come from private sources.

According to the proposal, $3 million would come from selling the stadium’s naming rights. And $2.5 million would be generated from leasing 25 luxury suites, mostly to area corporations. Lucas County would issue $4 million in bonds that would be repaid over 30 years by the team.

The final $2 million in private money would come from community promotions, selling items such as commemorative bricks, Muddy the Mud Hen Beanie Baby clones, and Mud Hens-brand bottled water.

The reliance on private money could clear what has been the biggest obstacle for stadium proponents: convincing taxpayers that they should ante up millions for a downtown stadium.

In May, Lucas County voters rejected, by a 3 to 2 margin, a temporary sales tax increase to pay for the stadium. That issue would have raised $35.4 million from taxpayers. Team officials took the vote as a message that voters don’t want to foot the bill by themselves.

The proposal would reduce the public burden from $35.4 million to $4.5 million, plus the costs of acquiring and preparing a site.

There’s a precedent for this shift in financing.

In 1997, voters in Columbus had the chance to approve a three-year, half-cent sales tax to build a hockey arena and a soccer stadium.

Columbus voters rejected the sales tax. Less than a month later, private money entered the picture. Two Columbus corporations announced plans to spend $125 million of their own money for the hockey arena. Officials with the soccer team, the Columbus Crew, agreed to pay for the construction of their stadium.

Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner has expressed support for the new emphasis on private dollars for the stadium.

“It appears to be an interesting combination of public and private sector resources, which calls upon the private sector for a significant commitment, which I certainly support,” he said.

But the mayor has said he does not want the ballpark built in East Toledo. He considers the stadium to be a key part of downtown’s revitalization, and he wants it to be built in the warehouse district – even if that district’s problems mean that the cost of the project goes up.

The warehouse district site includes land controlled by dozens of private owners, making the assembling of a site potentially very expensive.

Mud Hens officials want a park on the Acme plant site. The plant has its own lengthy history. When it opened in 1918, it was the main power source for all of northwest Ohio; in the 1950s, it generated 288 of the 320 megawatts Toledo Edison was capable of producing for the region.

But with nuclear power, the Acme plant became less important to Toledo Edison. After shutting down parts of the plant in the early 1990s, the utility put entire facility into mothballs in 1993.

When Toledo Edison needed to get the city’s approval for the merger that created FirstEnergy Corp., it offered to hand the Acme plant – and its valuable riverfront location – to the city, along with $2.3 million to clean up the site.

City officials haven’t decided whether they’ll take up Toledo Edison on its offer; they’re waiting for the results of environmental tests that will determine how much money it will take to clean up the site.

Mr. Bergsmark said that the Acme plant will have to come down sometime; so why not do it when you have something to put in its place?

“You can’t let it sit there for the next century,” he said.

But city and county officials have said that tearing down the Acme plant, moving the Toledo Edison substation on the site, and fixing any environmental problems would add more than $10 million to the project. Such costs would make a stadium there, in the words of city development director Barry Broome, “just not possible.”

Mr. Bergsmark said those cost estimates are “way out of whack” and far too high. Toledo Edison officials said they have never estimated how much it would cost to raze the Acme plant.

Ms. Isenberg said other questions remain about the East Toledo site. Among them: the traffic snarl that might be caused by thousands of baseball fans driving across the Maumee River at once.

“There’s also the question of infrastructure and roadway preparation,” she said. “If you go to a Storm game now, it’s murder getting across the Martin Luther King Bridge.”

The Toledo Storm hockey team plays at the Toledo Sports Arena, which is near the proposed East Toledo stadium site.

Mr. Bergsmark calls that concern an excuse.

“That’s a phobia people invent to avoid going to East Toledo,” he said. He pointed to the planned I-280 bridge and the possibility of improvements being made to the King bridge.

And the rules of baseball must be addressed, too. Mud Hens officials want the stadium to face the downtown skyline. But that would make the ballpark’s batters face west – straight into the setting sun for early evening games.

The rules of baseball say it is “desirable” for parks to face east-northeast. Representatives of other teams in the International League have raised concerns for the safety of their batters if they won’t be able to see the 90-mph fastballs approaching them.

The county commissioners will continue to look at other locations, Ms. Isenberg said. Mr. Bergsmark said that’s fine by him.

“It’s up to the county to give us a site free and clear,” he said. “Our job is just to build a stadium after we get a site with plenty of space for parking. The county decides where the site will be.”

But that decision could take a while. Ms. Isenberg said she has no timetable in mind for choosing a site, and she said she “won’t be rushed into making a commitment that is costly to the county.”

She said that other projects, such as a 911 communications center, a juvenile justice detention center, and a Sixth District Court of Appeals building, are much more pressing than a new stadium.

“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.”‘

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