by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, September 2017) Greater Cleveland Congregations (GCC) has a simple idea, if we can raise huge sums of public money to benefit a downtown development project like the expansion of the Quicken Loans Arena (the Q), we should be able to raise a similar amount to address real needs of Cleveland residents such as mental health services and workforce development.
GCC challenged leaders in Cuyahoga County government and the City of Cleveland to come up with a Community Benefits agreement that would raise funds for community needs from developers getting a subsidy from public dollars. City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County officials largely ignored the pleas of the pastors and their congregations.
Cuyahoga County Council and Cleveland City Council rushed to provide the subsidies to the Cavaliers billionaire owner Dan Gilbert, so he could expand the Quicken Loans Arena. The expansion of the Q would have allowed Gilbert to create bars and restaurants inside the Q, giving him a greater percentage of the before and after game and event business that now goes to restaurants and bars outside of the facility.
Cuyahoga County Council and Cleveland City Council refused to consider the GCC’s community benefits proposal. GCC then went directly to the people of Cleveland to gather signatures for a referendum on the legislation passed by the City of Cleveland to subsidize the Q. GCC, along with allies such as the Service Employees International Union and the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus, gathered over 20,000 signatures challenging Cleveland’s legislation to subsidize the expansion of the Q.
Cleveland City Council refused to accept the petitions. GCC and its allies challenged the refusal to accept the referendum petitions in court. The case went all the way the Ohio Supreme Court, and on August 10th, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the City Council should have followed the rules in Cleveland’s City Charter and validated the signatures to place the referendum on the ballot.
After the ruling, the Board of Elections certified that over 13,000 of the 20,000 plus signatures were valid, more than twice the roughly 6,000 signatures required to place the issue on the ballot. With the path cleared for Clevelanders to weigh in on the deal, Cleveland City Council was forced to place the issue on the ballot. Before City Council could vote on when the issue would go before the voters, Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert decided on August 28th to withdrawal his proposal to expand the Q.
Following Gilbert’s withdrawal of his proposal, GCC issued the following statement:
Since January, GCC has called on the Cavaliers, the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County to work on a substantive Community Benefits Agreement worthy of the $160 million of public money directed to the Q Arena expansion. GCC makes no apologies for prioritizing ending the cycle of using our jails to house the mentally ill, or seeking to employ the jobless. GCC makes no apologies for standing up for our most vulnerable residents in our most distressed communities who feel like second class citizens in their own city. GCC makes no apologies for standing up for the 22,000 people who signed petitions and were subjected to voter suppression tactics rather being able to exercise their democratic rights. The loss of this deal squarely lies at the feet of those who put old school politics above the interests of the people.
Countering the statement by GCC, Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish issued the following statement:
This is a significant loss for the community. It jeopardizes the future of two key economic generators: The Q and the Cavs. The deal would have guaranteed that the Cavs would stay in Cleveland through 2034 and it would have created and retained many hundreds of jobs for people living in our neighborhoods.
And the deal did not raise anyone’s taxes.
Contrary to misinformation put out by the opposition, the death of this deal actually means there will be less money, not more, available for social and community services for those most in need. By killing this deal, the opponents have harmed the future for our neighborhood residents.
Budish need look no further that his own words as to why public subsidies of over $160 million to expand a sports arena are so wrong when there are so many unmet needs in Cleveland. In a statement Budish issued in response to the axing of the State of Ohio program to help disabled Ohioans, Budish said, “I believe that a government is judged by how we support our most vulnerable residents.”
It is ironic that Budish would offer this judgement of the State of Ohio Government, and not see that Cuyahoga County and the City of Cleveland should be judged by the same standard.
Over a century ago, Cleveland Mayor Tom L. Johnson warned about the corrosive influence of the “politics of privilege” on our city. In Cleveland today, the “politics of privilege” continues to haunt our city. City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County leaders continue to opt to provide substantial subsidies to the projects of a handful of elite business owners, while efforts to address serious needs in the community remain woefully neglected and underfunded.