Numbers show steep potential costs for a west end site.
By ROGER G. SMITH
CITY HALL REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Councilman Michael Rapovy is as certain today about a civic center site as he was eight months ago.
In May, after council decided that the best site was land between the Market Street and South Avenue bridges, he carved the site into a glob of mortar, and all his council colleagues signed it.
The site was set in stone.
Nothing has changed since then, despite renewed chatter recently about building a proposed civic center on downtown's west end, he and the other council members say.
Reasons still valid: The reasons council picked the old steel mill site remain, they say. Among the factors: the space leaves plenty of room for parking, project expansion and riverfront development, and there's no need for demolition.
"In my mind, it's still the best site," Rapovy said.
Ron Sefcik, D-4th, said he likes the old industrial area because it was private businessman Bruce Zoldan's pick a few years ago. Zoldan did a feasibility study for a private arena on the bridges site. He has since become an advocate for a west end site.
Sefcik said little has changed since Zoldan considered Market Street. He sees no reason the city should change its decision.
Traficant's take: U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. of Poland, D-17th, who secured $26.8 million for a downtown civic center, largely restarted the west end notion last month on talk radio. He insists a hotel deal will fall through and no more federal money will come if there isn't a west end site involving the Western Reserve Transit Authority terminal.
Traficant also often mentions the importance of the west end to Youngstown State University.
The university, however, long ago made clear that its finances are too fragile to be directly involved with the project. Nothing has changed, said YSU President David Sweet last week.
As an urban planner, however, Sweet said a west end site offers the best development possibilities for downtown.
Rapovy said only a developer waving a big check for building a west end arena could change council's mind. "To this date, I have not seen anybody step forward with a check," he said.
Artis Gillam Sr., D-1st, called talk about any other location mere propaganda. Not even a developer offering big dollars could sway him to change the site, he said. The location is good for the whole city and shouldn't be compromised because it would help one investor, he said.
"We need to expand the city, not one person," Gillam said.
Mayor George M. McKelvey said Gillam may come around should a private developer step forward.
"Private money speaks. We must listen to that. We can't ignore that. That would be foolish," he said.
Feasibility study: McKelvey is having a feasibility study done to settle the issue. The study will explore costs involved with buying and preparing west end property. Developers and the city should know how much time and money a west end site will need before it's considered viable, he said. Millions of dollars in property costs or a long time line could make a west end site moot, he said.
He has heard estimates ranging from $7 million to $12 million and several years to buy and prepare a west end site.
Besides the WRTA terminal, five buildings on the same block would have to be bought, including a pawn shop and a taxi service office. A couple of buildings are empty. Part of the land is a parking lot.
Across Federal Street are vacant city-owned buildings that formerly housed Master's Tuxedo, a parking lot and one operating business, Ross Radio. There is a warehouse behind the Master's block at the end of West Boardman Street. A pie-shaped property across West Boardman near the river is mostly a parking lot with one empty building.
Combined, the properties are valued at about $1.3 million, according to Mahoning County property records.
The division: WRTA and the city hold three quarters of the site's value. Of the $1.3 million, $675,000 is attributed to WRTA's holdings and $220,000 is city-owned property.
Property values, however, don't account for payments that must be made to displaced businesses for being uprooted. Such negotiated payments can be substantial, and sometimes a court has to determine the figure.
Then there are demolition and site preparation costs.
Despite early and recent talk, little has been said to WRTA, said Jim Ferraro, executive director.
Nobody has approached WRTA seriously about selling and relocating the terminal, he said. Two WRTA board members, the Rev. Edward P. Noga and Joseph R. McRae, also are arena board members. They have kept the duties separate, Ferraro said, which he respects.
WRTA wouldn't oppose selling and relocating if that would help development, Ferraro said.
"We have a big commitment to downtown and the city," he said. "We're not averse to that at all. There wouldn't be any fight."
Relocation money: The biggest factor is money to relocate WRTA's downtown terminal, Ferraro said.
He isn't sure how much it would cost to buy WRTA's west end property. The land cost about $250,000 in the early 1980s. The terminal cost an additional $1.7 million to build a few years later.
The sale price is less important than what it would cost -- and how it would be paid for -- to rebuild elsewhere, Ferraro said.
A new station would need to be close to the existing terminal, he said. Ferraro and others have mentioned the vacant Salvation Army building on Mahoning Avenue. He has no idea what a new terminal there would cost.
The Federal Transit Administration would have to approve any deal.
WRTA is spending about $400,000 now to rehabilitate the terminal.
The city must reconsider the whole arena idea if no private money emerges, regardless of the site, McKelvey said.
"That surely is a vote of no confidence. We need to listen to that," he said.
Instead, the federal money might be used for a building with a different concept, McKelvey said. The site could be Market Street or the west end, depending on the use, he said.The city signed a contract -- with several key contingencies -- on Dec. 19 to buy 26 acres between the bridges from RSA Corp. for $1.5 million.
The sale, however, is void if environmental remediation or flood issues exceed $500,000. The city can also reduce the acreage it buys if some land is contaminated and unusable. The $1.5 million price stands, however, no matter how many acres the city ends up buying.
The contract says the deal must close within a year.
County records set the property's market value at about $150,000. Land, however, is always worth what someone will pay for it.
The price was based on previous offers for the land, said Chagnot and Atty. Mark A. Rafidi, who handled the sale for RSA.
Bruce Zoldan once held a $1.5 million option to buy the land, and the DeBartolo Corp. had a $2 million option when riverboat gambling was a topic, Rafidi said.
Property on the east side of the South Avenue bridge that RSA recently sold to a Maryland company went for a similar price per square foot, he said.
Also, the federal government must be convinced the price is fair before the city can buy the land. Rafidi is confident the government will accept the comparison prices.
RSA set the price before council picked the site, and didn't raise it once the choice came, Rafidi said.
The seller: RSA lists Elias F. Alexander as its president. The company is a partnership involving Elias and three other brothers or first cousins, Rafidi said. They inherited the property from an uncle, Joseph Alexander, he said.Rafidi said the Alexanders of RSA are "absolutely no relation" to George M. Alexander, a disbarred Youngstown lawyer sent to prison in 2000 for six years on a racketeering charge.
People first started considering the spot between the bridges, formerly a Republic Steel mill, in 1986, a decade after the mill closed. No detailed studies were done, however, said John P. Pierko, vice president of the environmental services division at MS Consultants in Youngstown.
Asbestos and a few other suspected hazards were found during construction of the South Avenue bridge. Fear spread by word of mouth about the entire property's possible environmental condition. Most of it was overblown, he said.
A year ago, MS studied the soil on 10 of the 25 acres the city is buying -- from the Market Street bridge to Walnut Street.
No asbestos was found. The only substance with slightly elevated readings was benzopyrene, a byproduct of coal burning. Benzopyrene is a cancer-causing chemical but is commonly found in everything from cigarette smoke to charcoal-broiled steak.
Tests to come: Only testing will determine if there are bigger problems on the other acreage, Pierko said. From studies on the first 10 acres, however, it appears the site should be OK for a civic center.
"We know from that portion of the site ... get the shovels out and start digging," he said. "From an environmental standpoint it's in pretty good shape."