a stadium scam moves forward

words: robert silverman


For a moment, it seemed as if they’d won. After months of organizing, protests, and battles in court, a progressive coalition had scuttled an ordinance backed by much of the local political machine and owner of the state’s most popular pro sports franchise that would have directed $70 million to the Cleveland Cavaliers as part of a $140 million plan renovate the Quicken Loans arena.


On Monday, the team issued a statement announcing that they were pulling out of the project which would have cost an estimated $282 million, with $122 million coming from the Cavaliers and the rest paid for by the city, county, and a tourism board via redirected admissions and hotel taxes by 2034, rather than wait for the results of a public referendum on the ordinance, scheduled in to be be held either in November or possibly  2018. (The statement has since been scrubbed from the team’s website.)


They cited their fear of rising interest rates and accompanying construction costs, claiming that any delays could imperil the Cavaliers’ chances of hosting future NBA All-Star Game. But the bulk of the blame for Cleveland allegedly losing out on the jobs that would be created and “millions” in economic impact was directed squarely at Greater Cleveland Congregations (GCC), who partnered with Cuyahoga County Progressive Coalition (CCPC), Service Employees International Union District 1199, and other activist organizations to collect 22,000 signatures to force the public referendum and temporarily stopped this stadium scam from becoming a reality.


Their victory was short-lived. In a surprise announcement on Thursday, GCC yanked the petitions in exchange for a promise made by representatives of Armond Budish, the county executive: Cuyahoga County would investigate--though no formal agreement had been reached--funding for two new mental health crisis centers in Cleveland at a cost of $10 million, plus an additional $2.4 million in yearly maintenance costs, GCC said in a statement.


The GCC also included this caveat in its statement: “We recognize the county’s intent to further research these investment costs and search for best practices,” the statement said. Budish also said any funding for additional facilities would be “subject to the availability of resources and determinations of the best practice to follow."


As Sam Allard wrote at Cleveland Scene, this represents a severe drop-off from GCC’s original demands: a community equity fund matching the $160 million allocated to the project, paid for in part by Cavaliers and/or owner Dan Gilbert himself. Activists who spoke with Allard are incensed and mystified, with one unnamed individual saying that the reasons they pushed for a referendum was to “kill the deal, not help GCC make a deal." [italics theirs]


Reached by phone, Steve Holecko, the CCPC’s political director, told Victory Journal that the Cleveland activist community was “stunned” by the GCC’s actions, especially considering the negotiations between the GCC and the city council occurred in secret and without their knowledge. The resulting  proposed agreement “from my understanding, is a pittance,” he said.


“Greater Cleveland Congregations ...  snatched defeat from the jaws of a great victory,” Holacko continued, adding that it was exceedingly rare for progressive groups to stop a stadium financing project given both the political and economic clout of the forces allied against them, and the endorsement of the project by the bulk of the local media.


A prominent activist who was a part of the coalition and spoke with Victory Journal was even more pointed in his criticism of GCC. “They were clearly bought off or threatened,” he said, though he admitted he had no concrete evidence of any payoff or funds that exchanged hands, an allegation that was echoed by mayoral candidate and current City Councilman Jeff Johnson in a press conference on Thursday. "I felt the pressure being put on [the GCC], I saw people dropping out of their organization,” he said. “So I'm not shocked by it but I was very disappointed.” (The DCC declined to provide comment on any of the allegations leveled.)


As evidence that the GCC caved to external forces, the activist cited the smear campaign that had ensued in the days that followed the Cavaliers’ Monday withdrawal.


In a radio interview on Tuesday, City Council President Kevin Kelley, a staunch supporter of the renovations, said that GCC’s funding sources  “should be investigated,” while implying that those working against the deal were not Cleveland residents, but rather activists imported from other parts of the state and Washington, D.C. Representative Marcia Fudge also smeared the GCC’s attempts to ensure that that the public had the right to weigh in, calling it “strong-arm tactics” and an affront to actual grassroots activism.


On Tuesday, Fred Nance, a Cleveland attorney who helped broker the deal, said that without the renovation agreement, the odds increased that the Cavaliers would pack up and leave once the team’s lease with the city expired in 202, a threat also hinted at in statements by the Cavaliers, Budish, and Mayor Frank Jackson. (The original agreement extended the Cavaliers lease at Quicken Loans Arena until 2034.)


“I think it has put a big question mark on the future of the Cavs in Cleveland,” Nance said. "We have significantly diminished our ability to keep this team here as a result of this.” It is worth noting that teams and their advocates routinely threaten to leave town if taxpayer dollars are not gifted to a new or renovated facility. The Cleveland Browns’ decision to flee to Baltimore in 1995 gives this blustering additional emotional heft, even if the chances are nil that Gilbert would leave the 19th largest media market in the U.S.


Of course, on Thursday, right before the GCC announced that they no longer would demand a referendum, Gilbert fired off a tweet promising that he would never leave Cleveland.


But according to Peter Pattakos, an attorney who represented GCC in the Ohio Supreme Court after Kelley refused to certify the petitions, leading to a bizarre scenario in which the city council sued itself, the GCC isn’t to blame.


“To the the extent that people are pissed off about this, good,” he said. “They should be. But I still think it was probably the best GCC could do… I think all along, [the GCC has] sort of been realistic about the fact that you can only get so much done in these situations.”


When asked about the response from activists, that their goal was to quash the project entirely, not broker a deal which allowed it to move forward, he responded, “What they've said is they don't oppose the renovations, they don't oppose the project; they wanted to ensure that commensurate funds would be directed to pay for community benefits."


To a degree, this is true. In an editorial on August 25  written by Pastor Richard Gibson, The Reverend Jawanza Karriem Lightfoot Colvin, and Pastor John C. Lentz Jr., all prominent GCC members, they stated, “GCC has never sought to derail the Q deal or to stop downtown development; we only seek to make the deal better for our community,”


But in the press release for the GCC’s  “Not All In” campaign, a reference to the Cavaliers “All In” slogan during their defense of the 2016 NBA title, the idea that they could support a stadium funding proposal isn't put front and center. Instead, they write that $160 million “could be better spent elsewhere.” In a statement, they also called the deal, “bad policy, a bad process, and fundamentally immoral."


During the multiple impassioned protests organized by the GCC and its partners, including one in which the GCC traveled to Detroit in an attempt to secure a meeting with Dan GIlbert, the opposition to the deal is made clear.


For Pattakos, even if they Cavaliers had rejected Budish’s non-committal promises, they would still have found a way to get the public money they desired via a re-written agreement that paid lip service to the GCC’s demands. “They would have come up with some really misleading way to say there's new community benefits in this agreement,” he said. “All GCC could have done is go out and collect signatures again, and go through the whole rigamarole again.”


Another avenue for the Cavaliers would have been to rework the funding agreement, such that Cuyahoga County, which is a billion dollars in debt, paid for the renovations, which would have taken a referendum off the table, he said. 


Allard, who has extensively covered the stadium funding plan, disputes whether this would be possible, though, given the outrage that would be generated by a vote-free funding ordinance. “The heat on that story would be thermonuclear,” he said via email [italics his]. “Those lawmakers would be scrutinized every step of the way, and punished for it… There'd just be no way to disguise or spin the contempt for democracy."


What’s more, the activist community is struggling to accept what transpired, and a complete pivot from the collective mood on Monday.


“Folks were exultant. Democracy had won,” he said. “There was this incredible energy, this electricity, this hope that Cleveland could become a turning point in a critical national conversation. It was surreal. Cleveland would always be the city that finally stood up to corporate interests and the elected leaders who lined up alongside them. But then take Thursday. The same folks were furious and bitter and tired. It was like they'd woken from a brief, splendid dream."


The Cavaliers have not yet said outright that they will return to the negotiating table and come up with a re-worked version of the funding ordinance, but it’s just a question of when, not if. On Thursday, CEO Len Komoroski said he was “very encouraged” by the removal of the referendum, a vote the Cavaliers surely would have lost, and that the team planned to discuss the next steps with the city and county.


But as a whole, Pattakos is enraged by what’s taken place--the unfair attacks by public officials, a largely compliant media, and the efforts to subvert the democratic process.


“This whole thing just shows how hamstrung we are as a voting public,” he said. “This is how it always is when you're fighting uphill. You can only do so much.”