Back in the late 1980s, Cuyahoga County’s powers-that-were decided that Cleveland would sink into the abyss of irrelevance if it did not erect a couple brand-new sports complexes for the Indians and Cavaliers.
So it approved an interminable sin tax on booze and smokes, set up the Gateway Economic Development Corporation to handle construction and operation, and tapped a local lawyer named Tom Chema to run the show. Under Chema’s watch, the project’s tab ballooned from an estimated $344 million to $461 million, not including giant foam fingers.
Now president of Hiram College, Chema has become the go-to guy for cities hungry for new sporting venues. He’s been traveling across Ohio and elsewhere as the principal of Gateway Consulting, spreading the gospel of how willing taxpayers gleefully spring for new arenas to massage civic pride.
He sold Toledo on its two-year-old Huntington Center, and this month he sidled up to leaders in Montgomery County to sell the dream to Dayton.
It seems Chema was a guest of Michael Lause, the newly appointed GM of Dayton’s indoor football team, which has spent the last two seasons playing exclusively away games. This has proven to be a wonderful formula for spending less time in Dayton, but a poor way to make money off beer and hotdogs.
“Dayton has talked about having a downtown sports complex for years, and nobody knew how to get started,” says Lause. [Cue Chema on horseback.]
“He brought a lot of questions and quite a bit of stimulation. I think with his experience with other facilities, he shot down a lot of misgivings as far as having a facility be profitable here.”
Indeed, Chema did not speak of cash raining from the sky. He warned the crowd that “these buildings are very expensive” and that there’s a lot of competition for dates and entertainment dollars. He was reluctant to respond to a question about a dollar figure for construction, saying “they’re always wrong.”
And you, dear Clevelander, are the proof of that.
In the book Public Dollars, Private Stadiums: The Battle over Building Sports Stadiums, authors Kevin J. Delaney and Rick Ekstein asked Chema about Gateway’s ever-bloating price tag.
“It was stupid to say a figure because I didn’t know,” he told the authors. “I didn’t have a clue what this project would cost.” He added that only four arenas in the U.S. out of hundreds actually pay for themselves; the rest hope to cover expenses so that tenants who use them can get rich.
Memo to Daytonites: Cash, checks, and retirement funds will be graciously accepted. — Anastasia Pantsios