Last Tuesday afternoon, Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish stood at a packed County Council meeting and emotionally pleaded for Council to approve the most recently proposed $70 million public handout to Dan Gilbert for upgrades to Quicken Loans Arena. Even though there is no legal obligation for the public to provide the proposed subsidy, the County Exec went as far as to say, "we stand a very good chance of losing the Cavaliers and the Q ... at the end of the lease if we don't make this deal now."
Here, Budish explicitly communicated on Gilbert’s behalf the absurd threat that Gilbert and his surrogates have been hinting at for years to justify the constant flow of nine-figure subsidies to the Cavaliers and Cleveland’s other two professional sports teams (all three, of course, privately-owned): “Give us your money, even though we don’t need it, because if you don’t we’ll pack up our balls and leave town just like Art Modell did.”
The message here is nothing short of extortion, defined by Ohio law (Revised Code 5924.127) as the “communication of threats to another person with the intention thereby to obtain anything of value or any acquittance, advantage, or immunity.” It’s outrageous enough that Gilbert and his brethren consistently hint at this threat while never making any effort to disclaim it. Much worse when the County’s top elected official—who should be calling Gilbert out on the veiled threat—instead only helps make it more explicit, giving it credence and using it to sway public opinion.
Imagine that Budish really believes it to be true that Gilbert and the NBA would abandon this profitable market and rabid fan base, LeBron's backyard, in the wake of LeBron's historic achievements here; that Gilbert would walk away from the casino monopoly that Ohio voters granted him in 2009, his Quicken Loans office, his gigantic (and gigantically subsidized) investment downtown, over not getting yet another handout that he obviously doesn't need and that ultimately amounts to peanuts for him. Here, it’s worth noting that he just announced plans to build a $700 million skyscraper in Detroit that would be the city’s tallest.
On the flip side, speaking of Cuyahoga County’s more than $1 billion debt load, Budish himself recently said that, “our credit-card is maxed out.” Meanwhile, the County’s infant mortality rate, already among the worst in the nation, continues to spike, with the gap in infant deaths continuing to widen deeply along racial lines. And just this week the CDC issued a shocking report that 20 percent of high school students in Cleveland’s poverty ridden public schools attempted suicide in 2015, the highest rate among 19 urban areas surveyed in the study.
Whether or not Budish believes that Gilbert would or could ever move the Cavs away, any sane discussion of the proposed subsidy would of course have been far different from the display Budish made at last week’s Council meeting. Such as to simply point to the extremely pressing alternative uses for these funds. And to request of Gilbert that if he really needs this money to keep the Cavs in town, to publish his financial statements so that taxpayers can be sure that this is the case (of course, it isn’t).
And if Gilbert—who has consistently refused requests to open his books—can't make this case (of course, he can’t), and ratchets up the threat to leave if taxpayers don't keep handing him money that he doesn't need, why wouldn't the County just say good riddance? Who needs a "partner" like this?
One need not take issue with the notion that the Cavs are an asset to the community to point out that the franchise would be even more of an asset if its owner would pay his own business expenses. By refusing to subject these subsidies to real scrutiny, and instead communicating absurd threats on the sports-owners’ behalf, Budish, Frank Jackson, and their corporate sponsors at the Greater Cleveland Partnership have made clear that they’re becoming increasingly comfortable with the widening economic and racial divides that persist in the region. Rotting schools, neighborhoods, and public health, spiking infant mortality rates and teen suicide rates for some. Publicly subsidized NBA basketball, concerts, and fancy downtown restaurants and bars for others.
Someone should ask LeBron what he thinks about the idea that Gilbert would rip the NBA away from his hometown for reasons that amount to no more than his own greed.