Friday, January 23, 2009

County chooses downtown mall as Medical Mart, convention center site

This is a surprise! The county commissioners have decided to build the Medical Mart and convention center on the downtown mall, not at Tower City.

MMPI, the developer, says it's figured out a way to build the project on the site of the current convention center for $108 million less than on Forest City's property on the river.

This'll stun everyone who thinks Sam Miller of Forest City controls Cleveland politics. But it's happening for a simple reason: Sam Miller does not control MMPI, and MMPI had an incentive to save money.

This summer, I was worried that the project would go to Tower City simply because Forest City was (naturally) lobbying for its proposal, while the mall site, which was publicly owned, didn't have an advocate. So when the Greater Cleveland Partnership's site committee declared that building the project at Tower City would save $60 million, who was going to argue?

But the county commissioners put a really important clause in their agreement with MMPI: the developer is responsible for all cost overruns. They did that because they knew critics would try to attack the convention center as "another Gateway." Lots of people opposed to big public downtown projects still point to the flaws in the 1991 Gateway deal, which left the public paying for lots of unexpected debt and expenses.

So MMPI threw out the Partnership's recommendation and started over. (See my earlier post about a Plain Dealer story that explained this, but not clearly.) The Chicago-based developer came up with a cheaper way to build the convention center: by using the existing center's foundation.

Yesterday's talks were held in private, a lot of details about the project haven't come out yet, and the county's deal with MMPI is still not finalized. Still, the debate about where to put a convention center has gone on for more than ten years. So this is really big news.

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