Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Hagan on convention center deal

I talked to Tim Hagan yesterday about the county's deal to buy the convention center and what's next.

On the deal: "I think the mayor was a tough bargainer," Hagan said. "He did have something of value to add to the project: that is Public Hall." (MMPI hopes to book trade shows into Public Hall by 2011, and it says the historic auditorium will help the new convention center compete against cookie-cutter centers elsewhere.)

I took Hagan's comment as his diplomatic way of saying Cleveland asked for too much money. The city seemed focused on the land's historic and future value during negotiations, while the county focused on how little money it's generating now. Later in our conversation, Hagan hinted that he found it ironic that the mayor took such a tough stance at a time when the city only has nine conventions booked.

What's next: The county will try to buy the three private properties on the corner of St. Clair and Ontario, including the Sportsman's Deli and the Justice Center parking garage. That's where the Medical Mart building and convention center entrance will likely go.

"We’re in a quandary," Hagan said. "We don’t want to be held up." That is, the county doesn't want the private landowners to hold up the project by demanding a super-high price now that they know how much the county wants the land.

The other alternative is for the county to move to make way for the Med Mart, Hagan said. "We can knock down the county administration building and it’d be cheaper."

What he means is, it'd be cheaper for the county to demolish its building and hand the land to MMPI than to buy the three properties. But it's not cheaper to build, buy or lease a new county building. I hope this idea is a feint, a negotiating ploy. I think the lesson of the cancelled Ameritrust Tower project is that the county can't afford a new home right now.

What about eminent domain?: Can't the county just seize the three properties if the owners ask too much? No, Hagan said, because the land is being turned over to MMPI to build on. Recent court cases have limited government's use of eminent domain when a corporation receives the land, he said.

The future of Positively Cleveland: "They have a role to play in town, a significant role," says Hagan, sounding more measured on the subject than he did a couple of weeks ago.

Hagan says the county still may cut the convention and visitor's bureau budget, because some of its responsibilities will overlap with MMPI's. (The bureau would say there isn't much overlap.) But Hagan also said raising the hotel tax to fund both the Medical Mart and Positively Cleveland is also a possibility. Also, he hopes the hotel tax will generate more revenue once the convention center opens, as more visitors come to town.

Hagan says the county has to figure out where it can get "the biggest bang for the buck" with the hotel tax money. "I’m not suggesting we cut their funding, but just to look at that."

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