A MEANINGLESS 'PUBLIC' MEETING ON MEDICAL MART

Submitted by Roldo on Wed, 09/03/2008 - 14:35.

You would have to describe last night first public hearing on the medical mart & convention center issue in Cleveland Heights as at least amusing. It was hardly productive. The meeting, scheduled at 5 p.m., started nearly a half hour late and then after a nearly 10 minute introduction by sponsor Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones the podium was passed to Squire Sanders & Dempsey boss Fred Nance. He took another 40 minutes of time talking about the report. To no one’s surprise a Forest City Enterprise plot on the Cuyahoga River was selected as the best place to build the convention center and Forest City’s Higbee’s building the best place for the medical mart. The public, which came out on a day after the holiday to an early evening meeting, didn’t fare so well. You can smile: the public was told it had three minutes to speak, though some were allowed to go beyond the time limit. There were references to the convention site as “on a cliff,” which probably irritated the Forest City executive Alan Krulak, who monitored the meeting. The “cliff” mentions weren’t meant to ascribe a proper and site for the convention center. Another response that brought giggles from the small audience referenced Nance’s law firm’s expectation of being legal counsel for the $400 million plus bond issue that would finance the $1 billion project. Nance, who is guaranteed to be paid $175,000 by the County, could expect some fancy million dollar fees as bond counsel. No response from Nance.Nance seemed mildly amused by the whole thing. It was refreshing to hear Jones describe the project as a Billion Dollar undertaking of “public investment” but I wondered to him why then wasn’t it presented to the public for a vote. I also chastised government officials for not following their pious pronouncements about “Regionalism” by seeking regional financing. This $1 billion project (it will be more) will be, as Gateway was, financed solely by Cuyahoga County residents. Browns stadium, the prize of Nance’s doing, is paid for by Cleveland residents. Make sure everyone knows that the tax is now ahead of projection of $40 million a year. It’s for 20 years which means more than $800 million. Plus the County has pledged to pay MMPI, operator of both facilities, $103 million over 17 years. As Nance prepared to give his remarks the audience found that the electronic Powerpoint aspect of the presentation wouldn’t work. This gave for some more guffaws when one audience member wondered aloud how much confidence the public could have for a team that couldn’t operate a DVD. Nance said there would be a $26 million or so shortage in County funds, despite the quarter percent sales tax increase voted by Commissioners Tim Hagan and Jimmy Dimora. Audience members noted that both Hagan and Dimora were absent. He said that could be made up by an extra bed tax or by taking some of the $8 million in bed taxes already going to Positively Cleveland, a name that always has to be explained as what was the Convention & Visitors Bureau. I wondered why Positively Cleveland was being given $8 million a year yet Nance moaned that the present Cleveland Convention Center was operating at five to six percent capacity. Wasn’t it Positively Cleveland’s job to help fill the center with visitor? What’s happening to our $8 million a year? Where the five or six percent figure comes from also suggest more winging it. When I asked someone knowledgeable at the city about the percentages cited by Nance the quick response was “What is that?” The way the convention center operates is by “event days” and they vary from 400 events in a good year to 250 events in a bad year. An event can mean every hotel in downtown Cleveland operates at capacity. Who will pay for the operation or destruction of the present Convention Center? There was talk, as there has been, about a film production center. And what tax will pay for that? Not the film makers surely since they are now asking for large public subsidies merely to film in Cleveland. The meeting was really worthless because the decision has been made and it will take a lot more than a few people griping about the tax, the terrible (always) process and the lack of public input. Lawson Jones responded to my remark (and writing similarly) that I wasn’t impressed with the fact that he didn’t vote for the tax as did his two colleagues – Hagan and Dimora. Truth is they didn’t need Peter’s vote. He claimed that was an attack on his credibility. Sure and it is, especially because he’s out there selling the project now. The only message would be to dump Lawson Jones in November. However, the Republican candidate is too tied to the powers to be and similarly for the mart and center, thus for the tax. Michael Benz of United Way Services gave one of the most supportive talks, urging that the project go ahead. It might be ironic that the social service funding agent of our area would be supportive of taxes being spent for more downtown interests. Jobs, of course, are bases of the pleading. It certainly is a bit ironic as Benz, a former executive with a former business front group, now the Greater Cleveland Partnership – today’s agent of subsidizing the Moneyed – has a pay package of $279,720. I guess he can afford the quarter-percent extra sales tax. By the way, that figure is two years old so he may be in a bit better shape now. As Dennis Kucinich told Democrats at the recent Democratic convention, “Wake up, people.”

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the kennedymart hearings

The commissioners held two “hearings” last summer before they added the tax without a vote. They were not so much hearings as a toleratings. I did see Dimora almost nod off during that event. Was he really hearing? Hagan seemed to be playing time cop, but not really listening.

When Jeff Buster at the “hearing” asked Kennedy to bond the project, Hagan told Jeff that his time was up and then Kennedy walked all the way around the room to where we were seated and gave Jeff his card saying he would speak privately with him about the issue. Jeff didn’t want a private discussion. Neither did I.

I was stunned that Peter Jones did not ask if what they were doing was truly legal since this is a convention center. From the Ohio Revised Code 5739.026 http://codes.ohio.gov/orc/5739.026 “If the tax is for more than one of the purposes set forth in divisions (A)(1) to (7), (9), and (10) of this section, or is exclusively for one of the purposes set forth in division (A)(1), (2), (4), (5), (6), (7), (9), or (10) of this section, the resolution shall not go into effect unless it is approved by a majority of the electors voting on the question of the tax.” So this tax is for (3) To provide additional revenue for the county’s general fund, but we know it is for a convention center. They decided to hide it in the general fund (loophole) so they would not have to put it before the electorate. They quickly disbanded the Convention and Facilities Authority. Given the propaganda, the voters might have voted in favor of the medmart, but they might have had to get to the point that they are at today before being able to put it on the ballot. And, oh... “We need the money right away!”

I also recall that the medmart site had a quote from a restaurant server in Elyria saying how the infusion of visitors would improve her income as a server in an Elyria establishment. I wondered just how that would work and now wonder if visitors will get out of Tower City or anywhere else the gerbil tubes that will emanate from it can take them. Will we see the promised economic impact from this investment? I sort of doubt it. Will restaurant servers in Cleveland Heights see their tips rise? Is that what we're holding out for?

While collecting signatures for the referendum asking them to put it on the ballot, many people in Cleveland Heights indicated that “we need the medical mart!!!” We had the same response at Wade Oval Wednesday and at North Union Farmer’s Market on Shaker Square. In fact, we had threats and nasty comments from people at these places – comments like “What’s your problem? Don’t you want to see Cleveland succeed?” There were arrest threats and signature collectors were asked to leave certain areas. We were apparently quite a threat to Cuyahoga county democracy.

Perhaps like the Ameritrust debacle, the commissioner will decide this is not the best use of a tax increase after all. I’m not holding my breath though. We could pay off Nance and say goodbye to Kennedy and apply the tax collected so far to health and human services or the RTA. If the medmart needs only two floors of the Higbee building, the existing convention center should certainly be adequate space for them to meet-up for chit chats and powerpoints mixed in with a long day of shopping. Even the meeting rooms at the Renaissance should suffice. Hey, here’s and idea – how about they take the Health Line and meet at the Intercontinental Hotel at Cleveland Clinic?