CLEVELAND, Ohio – The Cleveland Browns are apparently eyeing a new $1 billion stadium – likely to come at significant taxpayer expense – as part of a costly lakefront redevelopment plan, at a time when the team is already mired in multimillion-dollar controversies.
NEOtrans real estate blogger Ken Prendergast reported the news in a post Friday, writing that unnamed sources close to team owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam told him they want a covered stadium that could cost over $1 billion and are even open to moving the city-owned arena to a new location near downtown to get it. And so far, the Browns have not denied it.
In a recent interview, Peter John-Baptiste, senior vice president of communications for the Browns and Haslam Sports Group, told Prendergast that he was “a little too far out in front of the story” and would not comment on specifics.
Reached by phone Sunday, John-Baptiste declined to respond to the blog post but confirmed that the team is conducting “feasibility studies on what a new stadium could look like.” The results are expected sometime in 2023 and focus “primarily on renovating the current stadium,” he said, but he could not definitively refute whether plans might eventually include rebuilding or moving the arena.
Instead, he pointed to ongoing efforts to redevelop up to 70 acres of city-owned lakefront property, including the land on which the current stadium sits, into a sort of ballpark village surrounding – and further supporting — the arena, as evidence of the team’s intent to stay put. The plan envisions adding housing, retail, parking, hospitality and recreation spaces along the harbor, but is dependent on the city building a land bridge linking the area to other downtown amenities.
“Our focus is on the lakefront,” John-Baptiste said. “That’s the neighborhood we’re in, and that’s where we want to be.”
He could not say how much an upgraded facility might cost, but it’s likely to require significant public funding, considering most professional teams negotiate significant subsidies from their home city and county. The current stadium, which was built in 1999, cost $283 million, largely funded by city bonds backed by the county’s “sin tax” on alcohol and cigarette purchases.
A portion of that tax, which expires in 2035, is currently used to pay for capital or emergency repairs to the stadium, per the terms of the team’s lease agreement. Earlier this month, Cleveland City Council approved using the fund for $10 million in repairs, including a replacement of the pedestrian ramps that carry fans to and from the stadium’s upper levels. The remaining portion came from the city’s general fund.
The news comes at a time when the team is already under fire for guaranteeing quarterback Deshaun Watson’s $230 million contract – the most in NFL history – despite the now 24 massage therapists who have filed civil lawsuits against him, alleging sexual misconduct. That means he could continue to be paid even if he does receive disciplinary action, ranging from suspension for a specific number of games or indefinitely, to banishment from the league.
The NFL Players Association is preparing to fight any suspension without pay, cleveland.com’s Mary Kay Cabot recently reported.
The news also comes as the Browns continue to defend their million-dollar relationship with FirstEnergy, amid the ongoing bribery scandal around House Bill 6 and accusations that the company bankrolled a dark money group that tried to undermine its city-owned competitor. Cleveland City Council recently called on the company to relinquish its naming rights of the football stadium, but the Browns said they remain “committed to our relationship and look forward to our continued partnership.”
FirstEnergy reportedly paid the team $107 million in 2013 for naming rights through 2030.
The Browns have also been one of the main catalysts for redeveloping Cleveland’s lakefront. The Haslams proposed a plan last year to extend the downtown Mall into a sort of land bridge over the Ohio 2 Shoreway, finally linking downtown to lakefront attractions, like the city-owned football stadium, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Great Lakes Science Center. Not only is it believed the bridge would increase public access to the lakefront, but it would extend the city grid to the water’s edge and make new land available and attractive for other businesses.
The plan already has significant backing. Mayor Justin Bibb, the city of Cleveland, and the Greater Cleveland Partnership have organized a civic task force with five working groups and more than 150 participants to try to make the transformation happen.
The cost to reconfigure traffic and build the land bridge has been estimated at $229 million, the majority of which is expected to be funded by state and federal sources. But the city is likely to have to kick in at least some portion.
That cost would compete against any funding the city might provide toward renovations or a new Browns stadium, but it seems unlikely that the poorest big city in the nation will have much more to give.
The city’s 2022 budget includes $62 million more in spending than revenues will cover, and the city is already considering how it may participate in $1 billion plans to renovate or replace the Justice Center, which houses city and county courthouses, not to mention the financial impact of where the county chooses to build a new jail.
In an interview on cleveland.com’s “Today in Ohio” podcast leading up to the election, reporter Seth Richardson asked now-Mayor Justin Bibb what he would do if the Browns asked the city to subsidize a new stadium or renovations, like The Guardians had recently secured.
At the time, Bibb said he considers the city’s major sports teams “a great asset and a great boon to our regional economy,” but he would not support subsidizing sports stadiums unless the investments can be recouped and leveraged for more economic development.
“If we can find a way to raise nearly half a billion dollars to support Progressive Field and their renovations, then surely we can also find a way to have the same level of investment to support our neighborhoods,” Bibb said at the time.
Though the city and county have partnered to fund other stadiums – each picking up a third of the tab for $202.5 million in renovations to Progressive Field as part of a lease agreement with The Guardians – it’s unlikely that the city would be able to turn to the county for support either. Cuyahoga County Council is already weighing plans to spend $550 million on a new jail, $1 billion on a court facility, and $30 million or more on planned renovations to the Global Center for Health Innovation.
According to NEOtrans’s reporting, sources contend the revenues generated by the lakefront development plan could offset a significant portion of the building costs for a new stadium, even if it were moved to a new location. The post referenced two potential sites under consideration: either where the Main Post Office currently stands at 2400 Orange Ave., southeast of downtown, or near the Federal Bureau of Investigation building at 1501 Lakeside Ave. E.
They also say a stadium with either a permanent dome or retractable roof would also be able to generate revenue year-round, providing space for concerts, shows or other major events. The current open-air stadium is used only about a dozen times a year.
It appears the Haslams have just been waiting on final waterfront redevelopment plans to pull the trigger on plans for an upgraded stadium, according to reporting on the Browns’ official website.
“The city and The (Greater) Cleveland partnership has taken over the waterfront development piece, and we have committees working on that,” Dee Haslam said in March. “Our part now is how we bring the stadium up to a better standard, so I think we’ve started interviewing and thinking about architects and consultants.”