After the public rollout of the Q Transformation Plan and the subsequent county council discussions on the deal, County Executive Armond Budish has fiercely latched onto one supposed benefit
for the public in handing out some $160 million of taxpayer money to Dan Gilbert: It means the Cavs won't leave Cleveland. Nevermind that, by all accounts, the idea of Gilbert ripping the team from LeBron's backyard is utter nonsense.
Criticism of the deal from county council members (who, despite their misgivings, will probably vote for the deal
) and various organizations including the Greater Cleveland Congregations has focused on various aspects of the deal — the secrecy with which it was assembled, the false sense of urgency to get it approved, the public-private split. Encompassing them all is the feeling that Budish and his team (including lawyer Fred Nance, who has at various times drawn a paycheck from every interested party in the plan
) failed to negotiate in any meaningful way after the team first proposed the deal two years ago.
A trip in the wayback machine is in order here. When Gilbert and Co. first approached the county, it was during the tenure of Budish's predecessor, Ed FitzGerald. Fitz, Cleveland.com noted in its initial coverage, turned the idea down. So the Cavs came back after Budish took office with the same idea — a $140 million renovation with a 50-50 public-private split on the funds. It was, according to county officials, a starting point.
Emily Lundgard, then-spokeswoman for Budish, told Cleveland.com in February 2015:
"We are aware of a proposal from the Cavaliers organization, but it is only conceptual at this point. There have been no negotiations or decisions."
Negotiations would occur in earnest later that year in November when Fred Nance was brought on by Budish. Still, the resulting plan looked almost identical to the initial proposal in its broad strokes — $140 million, split 50-50. What, then, did the negotiations gain for the county?
The answer, at least in terms of what Budish champions as the biggest benefit of the deal, seems to be nothing the Cavs weren't already offering.
Cleveland.com called up Ed FitzGerald to talk about his reticence when the Cavs first approached the county. His objections, via Karen Farkas:
1. That the planned Phase 2 of Cavs owner Dan Gilbert's downtown casino seemed off the table. "If we were going to do this we needed a date when Phase 2 or its equivalent was going to be done."
Gilbert and casino officials have promised since 2012 to build a second phase of Jack Cleveland Casino or another project on land Gilbert owns overlooking the Cuyahoga River.
2. That he "was underwhelmed" by how the expansion of the Q could help the county.
"I wanted to see more economic benefit from the actual work being done and if that is not going to happen there is no point about talking about a significant contribution," he said.
Good points, especially the one about Phase 2, but that's another story for another day. (Do enjoy Brent Larkin breathing fire on the subject though
, if you haven't already.)
Anyway, Cleveland.com then called up Budish to get comment on FitzGerald's comments,
which is when things got interesting. After saying that talks between the two sides ebbed and flowed and only became serious after Nance joined in November 2015, Budish said (emphasis ours): "The deal that we have come up with is quite different and significantly better for the public than the one originally proposed by the Cavs. Most importantly, there was no lease extension in the original plan. We were able to keep the Cavs here for an additional seven years until 2034.
We were also able to creatively come up with a plan that avoided any tax increase."
It's important for two reasons. First, it's a reminder that Budish's biggest argument in support of the deal is that we'll get to keep a team we weren't going to lose anyway. Second, it turns out that Budish and Nance didn't even negotiate that part of the plan (and, one could assume at this point, very little if anything at all). Again, from Cleveland.com's report:
FitzGerald said a lease extension was part of the Cavs proposal presented to him.
When Budish was told by cleveland.com that a lease extension was in the original plan he issued a new statement: "We think this is a great deal for the public and we stand by it."
So if it appears that a plan proposed by a billionaire has been rubber-stamped by local government officials without any serious negotiations on behalf of the taxpayer, despite being in a strong bargaining position, that's probably because that's exactly what has happened.
Update: Councilman Dale Miller, in an email to a constituent, says that he was part of the group that visited the arena for a presentation by the Cavs in Fall 2014 and back then the proposal was $140 million, 50-50 split, and that a lease extension was part of the discussion.