Thursday, February 17, 2000

Stadium just more bad news for football fans




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Paul Brown Stadium is over-budget and underorganized. It is behind schedule and beyond comprehension. It is an ever-widening money pit and an expanding eyesore. It is destined to be remembered as the most feckless use of public funds since the $400 toilet seat.

        If it is not finished on time, Hamilton County must pay Mike Brown millions of dollars in penalties. If it is ready on time, it will be only because taxpayers will spend significant sums on overtime to push the project toward completion.

        When it opens, the average ticket will cost $43.53 — more than eight times the minimum wage. If ticket sales lag below 50,000 a game, the taxpayers must make up the difference. Until ticket sales produce a packed house, those fans who can't afford tickets will never see a home game on local television.

        Now, are you ready for the bad news? The prospective tenants are still the Cincinnati Bengals.

        Neither Ki-Jana Carter nor Dan Wilkinson nor David Klingler ever engendered as much buyer's remorse as Mike Brown's monstrosity on the Ohio. Some of this has to do with the recent quality of Brown's product — which, charitably, has ranged from dreary to dreadful — but some of it also owes to John Q. Public being repeatedly blindsided by bad news.

        Monday's disclosure of a construction audit detailing negligent oversight and up to $45 million in overruns was only the latest in a series of grating developments involving a structure designed to make minimal use of maximum space. Given the circumstances and the personalities involved, fresh outrages cannot be far behind.

Blame for Bedinghaus
        Construction projects of stadium scale invariably cost more than the original estimates. To assume this one would be any different was naive. To shield the citizens from overruns, Hamilton County negotiated a “guaranteed maximum price” for the project. Yet that agreement is sufficiently ambiguous that county officials were unable to say Wednesday which party ultimately would pick up the tab for unanticipated costs.

        This untidy state of affairs led to Wednesday's ritual of remorse at Hamilton County headquarters. Commission President Bob Bedinghaus, acknowledging an “incredible amount of blame that can go around,” called the project's various managers to the microphone to extract promises that the building would be open for business in time for the Bengals' preseason opener Aug.19.

        “Some would suggest that this (project) was the beginning of my political career,” Bedinghaus said, sardonically. “It might be the end of my political career.”

        The chief architect/scapegoat for the riverfront remodeling was bound to make enemies with such a bold initiative. It is inconsistent with traditional Republican taxophobia and at odds with Democratic distrust of corporate welfare.

        Yet Bedinghaus' mistake was not in advocating the stadium tax — it was approved, after all, by an overwhelming majority — but in failing to entrust the project to professionals. In refusing to establish a stadium authority or appoint an experienced oversight committee, Bedinghaus committed a critical lapse: He left himself nobody to blame.

More angry taxpayers
        Commissioner Tom Neyer, responding to pointed questions during Wednesday's meeting, derided the “self-righteous bombast” of project critics. Previously, Neyer had said it was not the time “to point fingers.” Given the potential taxpayer burden created by commission blunders, Neyer's self-serving, smarmy remarks contributed to the perception of a commission more arrogant than accountable. Another mistake.

        People are angry, and they deserve answers. They don't understand how their elected officials could have made a sweetheart deal with the Bengals and then made matters worse through inattention to detail. If it's not time to point fingers — if no one is culpable — it begs the question whether anyone is capable.

        The county commissioners are not evil men. They are politicians who decided the greater good would be best served by keeping pro football. They tried to take the long view but turned out to be short-sighted.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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