Proposed sports park at Historic Crew Stadium could go over budget, records show

·6 min read
The original vision for the Columbus recreation park at the site of Mapfre stadium.
The original vision for the Columbus recreation park at the site of Mapfre stadium.

An internal document indicates that officials in charge of building a proposed new city sports park on leased State Fairgrounds land could exceed their $12 million project budget.

Not only has the city still not reached agreement with the state to lease fairgrounds land needed for the park, but the probability that it also will cost more than budgeted continues a trend by the city of under-estimating what the package to keep the Columbus Crew from leaving town could ultimately cost the public.

"The original budget of $12M set aside by the development agreement will not be a limitation for developing this project, as (the department) intends on identifying additional funding to meet the full budget requirement," according to a Columbus Recreation and Parks Department meeting outline obtained by The Dispatch.

The document, from last February, was obtained from the state, which owns the land needed for the project, through the Ohio Public Records Act.

Columbus on sports park cost: 'We're still in the planning phase'

Asked about the document recently, the city recreation department said it still doesn't know what the 17-acre project could end up costing city taxpayers.

"We’re still in the planning phase, so no final plans or budget have been set," Kerry Francis, a Recreation Department spokeswoman, said in an email. "We continue to work with the Ohio Expo Commission."

Sunday marks three years to the day that Mayor Andrew J. Ginther announced the new sports park, on the day before unveiling plans for a new Downtown soccer stadium. In effect, Ginther answered up front a political question: What's in it for average city residents to help develop the Crew's expensive new home, a proposal rejected by voters in 1997.

About 200,000 Columbus residents live within three miles of the proposed city park site at the former Mapfre Stadium, now known as Historic Crew Stadium. The sports park would be accessible to Milo-Grogan, Linden, Northland, the University District and other neighborhoods, and would serve as a regional destination for tournaments, Ginther announced in 2018.

"The only way public-private partnerships work, and the Columbus Way thrives, is if everyone benefits," Ginther said at the event. "...If it's not for all of us, then it just isn't Columbus."

But with both the Crew's new Lower.com Field and practice facilities now finished, the sports park languishes without the needed land in the form of a long-term lease from the state. The project was supposed to break ground on July 1.

Ginther wasn't available to be interviewed for this story, said his spokeswoman Robin Davis. But she said city officials believe an agreement with the state is close.

"We have a near-final draft lease, and have outlined the city’s commitments which the Expo Commission Board is considering," Davis said in an email Friday. "We’re expect to have a lease in the very near term."

The Dispatch asked both Davis and the Expo Center for a copy of the latest draft lease proposal after Davis revealed its existence, but neither immediately could provide it.

Lease deal for land could cost far more than Columbus' initial offer

"We believe the Expo (Center) will be made more than (financially) whole through our partnership. In fact, we expect to generate new revenue opportunities," Davis said. "The Expo Commission has never put a price on the lease, and we don’t expect lease payments to be a barrier to finalizing the agreement.”

That said, when the Crew approached the Expo Center for the land needed to expand its practice facility at the Historic Crew Stadium site, it ended up costing much more than the $100,000 a year that the team offered. While the deal starts at $100,000 a year, in 2025 that doubles to $200,000, all on top of a $2 million up front payment that was due last spring to the Expo Center.

The city, on the other hand, initially offered the state $10 to rent land for its city park for a century. The state responded last January that it would want more and would also want to lower the lease term to a maximum of 75 years, matching the Crew's practice fields lease.

Plans showed the proposed park would provide an indoor recreation center with basketball courts and other programming spaces — even perhaps a full indoor soccer field — as well as up to six other outdoor grass soccer fields, envisioned as a location for regional youth tournaments.

"The question is: When is it going to be built?" asked Nana Watson, president of the Columbus branch of the NAACP, who attended the Dec. 5, 2018, Ginther press conference announcing it.

Watson said such youth recreation facilities can help keep teens out of trouble during a time of rising city violence. "It is our hope that they will keep their commitment to the residents in the area where that facility is going to built," she said.

The document stating that the sports park could cost the city more than the budgeted $12 million doesn't explain why, or whether that includes paying the state for land. The actual sports park budget "will be based on initial cost estimates of the program as developed by (project consultant) Legends/CSL and included in the next amendment," the meeting outline states.

Taxpayers' costs for Crew deal underestimated

In late 2020, the city hired Convention Sports and Leisure (CSL) under a $326,000 contract for design and planning work on the new sports park. CSL is a division of Legends Global Planning, the same firm that announced in July 2019 that it had been hired by the Crew to oversee planning and marketing of the Downtown stadium and the team training facility at Historic Crew Stadium, formerly known as Mapfre Stadium.

Although new soccer fields are being built as part of a Columbus Crew training facility, there are no soccer fields, basketball courts or other recreational opportunities for the general public around Mapfre Stadium. On December 5, 2018, the day before a new Downtown soccer stadium would be announced, Columbus city leaders gathered at Mapfre Stadium to reveal that the city would transform State Fairgrounds parking areas into a new public recreational sports park.
Although new soccer fields are being built as part of a Columbus Crew training facility, there are no soccer fields, basketball courts or other recreational opportunities for the general public around Mapfre Stadium. On December 5, 2018, the day before a new Downtown soccer stadium would be announced, Columbus city leaders gathered at Mapfre Stadium to reveal that the city would transform State Fairgrounds parking areas into a new public recreational sports park.

The $12 million sports park budget was set in the total spending plan for the new Crew stadium project, which included building Lower.com Field and transforming the former Mapfre Stadium into a team practice facility/concert venue. The team's $29 million expanded outdoor private practice facility opened on schedule in June – encroaching into the footprint of what was initially proposed to be the city's public playing fields.

The city initially said in December 2018 it would donate $50 million toward development related to the Crew stadium project, an amount approved by the City Council in a memorandum of understanding. But the city blew past that figure by more than double. Costs included moving a sewer trunk line, constructing roads and sidewalks, installing traffic signals, building a city-owned parking garage feet from the stadium, and donating tens of millions in cash – with the caveat being that the city's dollars couldn't go directly toward building the actual stadium.

The Columbus Crew's new downtown stadium, Lower.com Field, seen in November.
The Columbus Crew's new downtown stadium, Lower.com Field, seen in November.

At a 2019 stadium ground-breaking, Ginther said the end amount at that time was just under $114 million, which would reap a "pretty good return" in private jobs and investment.

The city's Public Service Department was required to fund infrastructure – streets, sidewalks, lighting and the like – around the new stadium and mixed-use development. It has thus far spent $6.45 million, which "represents the work completed so far," Public Service spokeswoman Deborah Briner said in an email.

"There will be additional infrastructure improvements funded out of the Public Infrastructure Project Budget as development of the mixed-use site continues," Briner said.

Briner said the city can't say how much remains to be funded, because "the project isn’t calculated in terms of what percentage is completed as it is carried out."

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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Columbus' planned sports park at old Crew Stadium might go over budget

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