Saturday, July 06, 2002

Clock ticks for site of ATP event

Tennis tournament needs help to purchase its home

By Cindi Andrews,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MASON — The Tristate's world-class tennis tournament is coming up short on money and time to buy its home of two decades, but several local officials who've been asked to help are suggesting it's Carl Lindner who should step in.

        Mr. Lindner's American Financial Group wants the Western & Southern Financial Masters to pay $16.5 million for the 90-acre site off Interstate 71. However, it's worth just $7.8 million as a location for office buildings, according to an appraisal completed for the city of Mason.

        “Bottom line, without the (tournament) there, the value drops greatly,” Warren County Commissioner Pat South said Friday. “I'm very hopeful that American Financial will step up to the plate here in these waning hours to help close the deal.”

        The 10-day tournament, one of just nine Masters-level events worldwide, is a required stop for professional tennis' top male players. It adds an estimated $23 million to Greater Cincinnati's economy annually.

        The Masters' lease expires in 2005, and Chairman Paul Flory said he will have to move it elsewhere — possibly outside the Tristate — if he can't buy the ATP Tennis Center.

        An American Financial spokeswoman said Friday

        the company has supported the event with millions of dollars in sponsorships and wants to see it stay.

        The parties had gotten close to an agreement on the land, which includes the Bruin Golf Course and the three tennis stadiums the tournament paid about $20 million to build. Mr. Lindner and American Financial, however, have become frustrated by the pace of the talks.

        Neither American Financial nor the tournament would comment on specifics of current negotiations.

        “We're very appreciative of their support,” tournament spokesman Phillip Smith said of the company.

        The tournament, a nonprofit, is on solid financial ground, generating about $8.5 million a year in revenue. It has long supported Children's Hospital Medical Center, to which it expects to give more than $300,000 this year.

        Mason was considering buying the property to ensure the tourna ment remained, City Manager Scot Lahrmer said, but “we weren't sure we could recoup the money.”

        The city got an appraisal last year from the GEM Real Estate Group of Dayton — obtained by The Cincinnati Enquirer through a public records request — that estimated the site's value at $21 million.

        However, that was dependent on the Masters remaining. Without it, the value would “decline precipitously,” GEM's report said.

        The land would be worth $17.3 million if it were to house retail. But the city's land-use plan and the site's limited access — midway between two I-71 exits — argue against retail.

        As office space — the desired use in the land-use plan — the site is worth $7.8 million, GEM said.

        Mr. Flory has sought annual payments from local jurisdictions to help finance the $16.5 million price. Warren County commissioners agreed last week to kick in $40,000 to $50,000 a year in hotel tax money. The Deerfield Township trustees, however, were skeptical of the $100,000 a year Mr. Flory sought from them — equal to the amount Mason has agreed to pay.

        “I wish that the Lindners would be a little more active in helping the ATP find funding,” Trustee Barbara Wilkens Reed said. “I'd like to see the county more involved in the process, too.”

        Documents given to the trustees indicate that, should the tournament pay the $16.5 million asking price, it would be $275,000 short on its debt payments for each of the first five years, and short smaller amounts for the rest of a planned 25-year loan.

        Wherever the money comes from, said Tom Raga, Warren's state representative, keeping the tournament should be one of the area's top priorities.

        “It's really one of the jewels of Warren County,” he said.

        Staff reporters Cliff Peale and Michael Perry contributed.


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