Monday, February 2, 1997
When stadium opens, all this may be forgotten

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

More on the deal
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  • Sunday: Deal passes in overtime
  • Today: Kroger exec saved the day
  • Mike Brown knows about buyer's remorse. He employs Dan Wilkinson, after all. He traded up to throw millions at Ki-Jana Carter.

    Brown uses his bargaining power ruthlessly, but he's not always right. If his financial standing were not so pleasurable right now, the owner of the Cincinnati Bengals might be feeling your pain.

    Nearly two years after Hamilton County voters overwhelmingly approved the stadium sales tax, negotiators for the county, the city and the Bengals sealed the last escape hatch early Sunday morning. A deal that has been tweaked beyond recognition, maybe misrepresented and certainly debated to death may actually get done.

    It will cost more than the voters expected, and probably much more than they would presently approve. It gives the Bengals financial guarantees that might provide Brown a disincentive to field a more competitive team. It places the Cincinnati Reds in a precarious position, given that the county has already earmarked most of its tax money for a football stadium that will be (partially) filled about 10 days per year.

    Time to finally move ahead

    But at least this stage is over. At least we can now concern ourselves with actual construction overruns instead of lowball estimates. At least we can watch a spanking new structure rise on the riverfront where Boomer Esiason will one day come back to provide color commentary. At least, and at last, the end of the beginning is at hand.

    Appropriating public money for private enterprise is never a smooth process. Nor should it be. It is, generally speaking, bad policy. It entails, almost invariably, power politics. If Bob Bedinghaus and Co. did not comprehend what the Bengals' stadium was going to cost when they campaigned for it, they neglected their homework. If they did understand and deceived the voters, they ought to be keelhauled.

    We'll never know for sure. But if this process has taught us anything, it should be to demand more details before we allow our officials to be stampeded by artificial deadlines. Much as we prize our professional sports franchises, and recognize that Cincinnati's market size limits the likelihood of replacing them, there is a point in any deal where the prudent thing to do is pass.

    Minneapolis has learned that lesson, and so, too, has Pittsburgh. Since Hamilton County voters agreed to underwrite the Bengals and Reds in March of 1996, voters in Minnesota and Pennsylvania have rejected tax initiatives designed to subsidize their teams. The trend nationally is to say no to the ceaseless demands of sports owners. Like most matters of fashion, that trend was a little late in reaching Cincinnati.

    Lessons learned, hopefully

    But we are wiser now, or ought to be. We know to add the cost of land acquisition, the impact of inflation and the prevailing wage into construction estimates based on the building costs of other ballparks. We know that it is not unreasonable to expect a cap on those costs. We know that politicians sometimes respond to leverage instead of logic, and that by caving in to the Bengals, the county has compromised the Reds.

    It says here - and has since this long story started to unfold - that the Reds deserve better than what they've received; that their history, traditions and economic impact should place them on at least a level playing field with the Bengals.

    Instead, a highly profitable football team has been treated like a charity case while our hand-to-mouth hardball team is continually shoved aside. Yes, the Bengals were more easily moved than the Reds. No, that is not a good enough reason.

    Mike Brown and his lawyers have wielded their leverage wonderfully. They have outflanked Marge Schott at every turn and repeatedly outmuscled the politicians. If they have alienated some of their fans with their threats and demands, it is possible this will pass.

    The best thing about buyer's remorse is that it is not always permanent. Construction starts, interest grows, excitement builds. By the time Paul Brown Stadium opens, its origins may be an old memory.

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