The Bengals declared themselves king of a new Jungle on Thursday, three blocks west of their Cinergy Field home on the riverfront.
The football club agreed with Hamilton County to place the new, $180 million stadium on the western fringe of the riverfront, between Central Avenue and Elm Street. The deal included one surprise: football practice fields next to the new facility.
''This is a big step,'' said Bengals General Manager Mike Brown. ''It makes concrete our project in a real way to me. We now know we will be on the riverfront, and that was our goal all along.''
In addition to finding a home for the Bengals, Hamilton County officials boldly seized control of Cincinnati's future riverfront. They announced they would acquire almost all land from the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge to the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, bounded to the north by Pearl Street (one block north of Pete Rose Way) and to the south by the Ohio River.
The purchase will consolidate land now broken up among 15 private owners and two governments, city and county.
It leads the way to a public park stretching along the water's edge, a
million Underground Railroad museum and other attractions, as well as the Bengals stadium.
''The living room of the city of Cincinnati is opened up,'' said Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls.
County Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus, leader of stadium development, said the land-taking initiative was simpler if done at once.
''It's more efficient,'' he said. ''We've got to deal with everybody (landowners) anyway.''
The county will try to relocate about eight produce companies now on the site and will negotiate with other companies to buy their land.
Mr. Bedinghaus said parks planning will be turned over to the city. ''It's not our goal to be developing things other than stadiums,'' he said.
The next logical question is, where does the Reds' proposed stadium fit in?
Marge Schott, principal owner of the Reds, threatened Thursday night to move the Reds out of town - possibly to Northern Kentucky - if the county tries to build the Reds ballpark at a proposed uptown Broadway Commons site.
''The taxpayers voted for us to be on the river,'' Mrs. Schott said. ''And that's where we want to be.''
But urban planners say crowding the central riverfront with stadiums would be a mistake.
''By moving (the Bengals) to the west,'' Mr. Bedinghaus said, ''the purpose was not to make more room for a baseball field there. I don't think you'll find the city or the county supporting that.''
Remaining Reds sites are northeast of Cinergy Field, at the Cinergy Field site itself, at Broadway Commons and in place of Riverfront Coliseum.
The Coliseum changed hands earlier this week and is scheduled for a $14 million makeover by October.
For football, ''it's full speed ahead now'' to complete the stadium design in nine or 10 months, said Ron Turner of NBBJ Sports and Entertainment, the stadium architects from Los Angeles.
He described a richly landscaped walkway along the Race Street/Elm Street corridor, leading to the stadium and connecting downtown with the riverfront.
The southeast corner of the stadium will be open to the river, Mr. Turner said, with terraced steps leading to the water.
Thursday's developments heralded unprecedented cooperation among city and county officials, several said.
Mayor Qualls called it ''a day of great success'' for the county, which took on stadium development after taxpayers approved a half-cent sales tax increase last March. The tax will raise more than $35 million a year for Reds and Bengals stadiums.
Such governmental cooperation will smooth the Bengals' path to a stadium ready for the 2000 football season, said County Commissioner Guy Guckenberger. ''What is really significant about this is, with everybody on board, it ensures deadlines are going to be met,'' he said.
County officials expect construction to begin in early 1998. Land acquisition may take six to nine months.
The deal required compromise on the Bengals' part. Mr. Brown said he had preferred a site one block to the east, because it is closer to downtown. But the county and city pushed for the westernmost site.
''The primary motive for us to go to the west is we thought the community would be best served by that,'' Mr. Brown said.
Troy Blackburn, Bengals director of stadium development and Mr. Brown's son-in-law, said the site selection will propel sales of luxury suites and club seats in the new stadium.
''We can start presenting fans some clear indication of what the stadium is going to look like, feel like, be like,'' Mr. Blackburn said in an interview.
At the last official count, the Bengals had sold 60 of 104 luxury suites. They have not said a word about the 7,500 club seats. The team must sell 80 percent of each by April 30 or the preliminary lease agreement is broken. The county has already sold more than $20 million worth of seat licenses, or Charter Ownership Agreements, which are $300-$1,500 payments for the right to buy season tickets.
Eventually, the team must also sell 50,000 season tickets for the 2000 football season, per agreement.
The county and Bengals are working toward a June 30 deadline to sign a final lease.
County Administrator David Krings said the site selection takes care of some issues that were on the negotiating table.
The Bengals and the county had been working toward including a practice field next to the football stadium, but it was never a certainty. The preliminary lease agreement, signed in September, provides for a new practice field or for the county to pay up to $9.8 million to improve Spinney Field, the Bengals' current headquarters in Lower Price Hill.
Spinney Field may be offered as a new headquarters for the Castellini Co., the largest produce concern on the riverfront, two sources confirmed Thursday.
The land taking announced by county commissioners includes the bulk of Robert Castellini's holdings on the riverfront, if not all. Mr. Castellini had been working with Cleveland developer Albert Ratner to create a complex of apartments, offices, shops and a marina.
Where Thursday's announcements leave the Castellini-Ratner proposal is unclear, said a Castellini spokesman, Joe Bride.
''We don't fully comprehend what has been proposed and what its impact will be,'' Mr. Bride said. ''We're going to sit down with the county and city and understand the plan and its effect on us.''
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