Sunday, December 15, 1996
Business sense puts stadia off Broadway

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Our purpose this morning is two-fold: We come to praise Broadway Commons and also to bury it.

Jim Tarbell had a swell idea, has done a spectacular job of promoting it and has nearly no shot at succeeding. He has swayed a large portion of public opinion in support of building one of Cincinnati's new sports stadia at the corner of Reading and Broadway. Trouble is, the teams remain intractable.

Tarbell has run a remarkable grass roots campaign, but he has struck out repeatedly in the executive offices of the Reds and Bengals. And that is the name of that tune. Without the blessing of Mike Brown or Marge Schott, a ballpark at Broadway Commons is no more likely than vineyards on Venus.

The will of the people is one thing. Political power is quite another.

Those who see this massive construction project as an instrument of urban renewal miss the fundamental fact of the matter. Sports franchises, like any other business, exist to make money, not to revitalize neighborhoods. While it might make perfect sense for city planners to place one of the ballparks at Broadway Commons, the concept collapses without a willing tenant.

What benefits teams

Despite the public's considerable tax contributions, the issue at hand is not which location is best for the general welfare of the city, but what serves the specific needs of the teams. This does not mean county officials should cave in to every whim of the teams - though they usually do - merely that it is fruitless to attempt to impose a location neither owner desires.

''There's a warm sense about Broadway Commons because it would be more of a neighborhood ballpark than Riverfront,'' said architect Eric Doepke. ''But it has to make good business sense. I don't think you should show them (the owners) a recommendation that doesn't make good business sense. They do some things through their heart, but they've got to make it pay.''

Doepke is a local consultant for Urban Design Associates, the Pittsburgh firm which is to make site recommendations later this month. Doepke's preference, plainly, is for riverfront construction. He compares building at Broadway Commons to ''putting a piece of jewelry on a tattered fabric.''

Mike Brown has been known to wear tattered fabrics in his time, but he is real particular about real estate. The Bengals president covets the riverfront frontage west of the Suspension Bridge for its prime location and its proven record for access, egress and parking. So does Reds owner Marge Schott.

''It isn't sensible to take something that works well - and we know that the riverfront works well - and change it unless there's a very powerful reason to change it,'' Brown said. ''And I haven't seen a good enough reason to change it.''

The lot Brown seeks is probably too valuable for the limited purpose of a football stadium, but he may have enough leverage to land it. Unlike the Reds, whose lease at Cinergy Field runs through 2010, Brown's franchise is eminently portable. In today's sports world, there is no more powerful bargaining chip. Jim Tarbell, certainly, has no negotiating muscle to match it.

Site secondary consideration

Hamilton County voters approved a 1/2-cent sales tax increase in March because they saw it as a referendum on keeping the pro teams in town. Which parts of town the teams would occupy was at best a secondary consideration. It remains a secondary consideration.

The top priority is that the teams stay put, and that they are able to thrive on whatever corners they occupy. Unless Tarbell can convince one of the teams there's more money to be made at Broadway Commons - his own vested interests notwithstanding - he will be wasting his breath.

''I think what we want - both Marge and I - is what is best for the teams,'' Brown said. ''That's obvious. But I don't think that that is inconsistent with what is best for the public. ... It will only work best for the teams if it is best for the public.

''We want it to work. We want people to come. And they're going to come where it is located most advantageously for them.''