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City can have its cake and icing, too



Published: Sun, September 30, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.

By Bertram de Souza (Contact)




On Tuesday, ground will be broken in the city of Massillon for a $20 million multi-purpose sports, recreation and entertainment facility.

Big deal, you say? The city of Youngstown has $26.8 million from the federal government for a convocation and community center, you say?

Well, consider this: the Massillon project, which will consist of a main auditorium with 6,500 permanent seats, is being developed by MG/Dove of Carmel, Ind. That's right, a private company.

The first three floors of the auditorium will be retractable in order to accommodate events, such as soccer or arena football that require a larger floor area. The floor will also be designed to accommodate sporting events ranging from ice hockey to basketball to wrestling.

But the most important aspect of this project is that a group of private investors is putting up the money.

In other words, the city of Massillon will have no responsibility whatsoever for the operational costs, maintenance of the facility, or taking care of it if the leasing plans fall through

The private investors will absorb all the risks.

So what is Massillon's contribution? The land and having secured $1.5 million from the Ohio Sports Commission for improvements to the roads.

Youngstown: By comparison, the city of Youngstown would spend the entire $26.8 million that Congressman James A. Traficant Jr. secured for a convocation and community center on what would, in reality, be a glorified sports arena. Thus far, no private sector money has been committed -- even though the project's cost has been tagged at between $40 million and $50 million. For that amount of money, Youngstown would have a 10,000-seat facility.

Is such a big arena necessary or even realistic? The lack of private sector money suggests that it isn't.

What is? A multi-purpose sports, recreation and entertainment facility similar to the one being built in Massillon -- with private dollars.

There are strong indications that MG/Dove would be willing to consider building such an arena in Youngstown if city government would come up with a $4 million incentive package. That amount includes the $1.5 million the city is paying for the land between Market Street and South Avenue bridges.

The $22 million that would be left over from the federal grant, which Congressman Traficant was singularly responsible for securing, could then be used to develop a civic complex in the downtown area. Such a complex has long been the dream of various city administrations.

A new city hall, a new municipal court, a 1,000-seat convocation center and the restoration of the old State Theater to house the Youngstown Playhouse would provide a major boost to the central business district.

A civic complex would certainly meet the federal government's definition of a convocation and community center.

When he sought the money for the project, Traficant left the legislative language vague, which means the city has the flexibility to use the grant in a variety of ways. Even officials of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is administering the $26.8 million, have said that the grant is not project specific.

The congressman has previously voiced concern that any attempt to reprogram the money in Washington would put the $26.8 million at risk. However, the development of a civic complex would not require any further legislative action.

Partnership: Indeed, the city can make the argument that a privately funded sports arena and the publicly funded civic complex are part of a grand design for downtown Youngstown and represents the kind of public-private partnership the administration of President George W. Bush has been touting.

As for Traficant, he would receive credit for the interest being shown by a private developer in building a sports arena in the city -- it would house minor league ice hockey and arena football teams -- and he would be hailed as the facilitator of one of the most important downtown revitalization projects in recent memory.

The civic complex would require tearing down many empty storefronts. The new structures would not only have a positive impact on the image of the central business district, but would engender a sense of pride in city government.

Traficant holds the key -- $26.8 million -- to Youngstown's future.

It's time to face reality: The city will have to wait a long time for another gift of this size from Washington. The money should be used wisely.




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