December 11th, 2012

Roldo Bartimole writes:

How much confidence do I – or you – have in the Cleveland Board of Education getting a fair price for the sale of its a gem of a historic downtown administration building on East 6th Street:

Minus zero. Actually less.

This celebrated building sits on 1.75 acres of the best situated property in downtown. It is within walking distance of Public Square, the casino, Gateway, Browns Stadium, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and much more of our compact downtown. That means it’s very economically desirable.

I predicted this chicanery would happen after a successful levy. Double cross is popular in Cleveland. And, of course, the decision-makers are choosing an economic low point for their sellout.

Before examining the possible sale of the historic building and site, we should set the stage. This isn’t the first time development interests have tried to capture this gem of a building in its historic Century old Group Plan setting. I wrote about this back in the early 1980s. That fight to gain control lasted into the mid-1980s.The theft then was stopped by opposition from the African-American community. And politicians who actually cared. They pushed back against Mayor George Voinovich and Council President George Forbes. Both of them favored the sale and were ready to add significant financial subsidies. Those who fought the give-away were Stan Tolliver, Mildred Madison and Ed Young, all black school board members.

Here’s what I wrote in 1984:

… Forbes has mounted his white horse again, leading the charge for developer John Ferchill and Ted Bonda, millionaire businessman and board of education president.

Ferchill – with Bonda’s help – wants the city to purchase the school board’s historic administration building and then turn it over to Ferchill for a hotel development.

They want it cheap. They want it with massive subsidies. They want it with a city-built, city-financed parking structure. They want the historic 25 percent tax credit to entice investors. They want it quickly and they want it with no public input.

You may have notice that there have been no public hearings and little public discussion. It will be a fast deal. And the Plain Dealer – whose reporters say news day cutbacks will hurt public discourse – hasn’t burned up the wires with public discussion.

You can bet right now that Mayor Frank Jackson will be only too happy to give a potential developer new subsidies. He’ll continue our smelly cesspool politics.

Here’s what Ferchill wanted some 30 years ago: A $10 million UDAG at 3 percent interest; a $5 million tax credit; development loans of some $25 million during construction; a city-built parking structure at $5 million (later done and given to Dick Jacob under the city’s Mall A); and the city’s purchase of the building to meet legal restrictions.

At the time Bonda was a partner of Ferchill in a quest for a cable TV franchise along with Forbes’ personal lawyer. Cozy but fetid politics as usual.

The school administration building was constructed in 1930 for $1.8 million on land worth $845,000. The price offered was about $4 million by investors in the mid-1980s.

But Cleveland seems to be in the worse governance condition now than in many years. A bad sign for saving the school’s historic building. There are no opponents to what will be a give-away. We don’t even know potential buyers yet.

Part of the reason is that Cleveland City Hall has become stultified by a purposeless but popular mayor, backed by a disturbingly drowsy City Council and a sluggish and apathetic citizenry. The tedious Jackson unfortunately controls the school system. The board members, appointed by Jackson, seem docile and useless.

What a volatile combination for chicanery and corruption.

We’re told that the sale of this strategically situated (next to the new convention center, close to $2 billion of attractions with parking beneath (75 spaces and hundreds more) adjacent will be by auction.

The school press release this week announcing an “outcry auction” next March doesn’t set a minimum acceptable price. Neither does it mention a word about the cost of new space for the school administration operation. Will the school system actually have to pay more in rent elsewhere? Who knows? And who cares?

Where are documents that attest to the real value of this building and its buildable land? Where are figures to show the schools can rent other space more cheaply? Are there potential for much higher costs and a drag on the Cleveland schools?

Where is the community discussion? Where is the all-important Plain Dealer in providing community information? I’m not just worried about a three-day a week newspaper but an everyday newspaper on these crucial issues.

Are they too busy covering the Browns along with TV news?

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