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Published: Monday, 4/25/2005

Tale of 2 cities finds 1 building an arena, 1 waiting

BY TOM TROY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The Youngstown Convocation Center, being built on the former site of a steel mill, is targeted for opening in November.
The Youngstown Convocation Center, being built on the former site of a steel mill, is targeted for opening in November.
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While Toledo frets over where and with what money to build an arena, another economically stressed Ohio city is putting the roof on a new facility.

Youngstown hopes to open the Youngstown Convocation Center in November.

How Youngstown came up with the money for an arena makes for a good political yarn - but it won't help Toledo, local officials said.

Most of the money for the $41 million structure is a federal grant of $26.8 million channeled through the Department of Housing and Urban Development and arranged five years ago by then-U.S. Rep. James Traficant (D., Youngstown).

It's not likely to happen here, U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) said.

"It was a rather strange circumstance," she said. "With our colleague Jim Traficant's situation at that point in history, he was trying to help his home community and he had to sell his soul to do that."

Traficant pledged to cross political lines in June, 2000, to vote to retain Republican Dennis Hastert of Illinois as U.S. House speaker, the day after Mr. Hastert signed off on the grant for the Youngstown center.

"That was what the congressman was able to leverage for his support of Speaker Hastert," Youngstown City Councilman Rufus Hudson said. "Politics makes strange bedfellows."

Two years later, Traficant was expelled from Congress following his conviction in federal court for racketeering, bribery, and tax evasion and is serving an eight-year prison sentence.

Youngstown Mayor George McKelvey said the city is grateful for Traficant's maneuvering.

"I think that is terrific horsetrading," Mr. McKelvey said. He added that, "if he were on the ballot today, there is no question he would be elected from jail."

But the center won't be named for its benefactor - or Mr. Hastert, despite one newspaper's recommendation. Youngstown is trying to sell the naming rights for up to $5 million.

Youngstown, located midway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and hard hit by the decline of the American steel industry, has 82,500 citizens, compared with Toledo's 313,619.

Youngstown's arena is an all-in-one center, providing what one local official said would be the first large-sized facility for ice hockey and concerts.

Now rising on the site of a former steel mill at the edge of downtown, the facility will hold about 5,700 people for a hockey game and up to 7,000 for a concert. Views of the construction can be seen on the center's Web site, www.ytownconvocationcenter.com.

Youngstown expects the facility to host up to 100 events per year, possibly including both arena football and professional indoor soccer, and to become the "entertainment hub" for the Mahoning Valley.

The center will be shared by Youngstown State University, which has helped to leverage a $5 million higher education grant.

"We really don't have a convention center," Mr. Hudson said.

"There's never been one convention site for circuses, Disney On Ice, Double-A hockey, potentially in a couple years arena football, guns and knives shows, that kind of thing."

The 26-acre site has room available for hotels and other amenities to support a convention center, as well as casino gambling, should that come to pass.

Mr. McKelvey said the arena site is only four acres and has parking for at most about 1,000 cars. The plan is for visitors to park in the downtown and walk to the arena, a quarter-mile to a half-mile away.

In addition to the state funding, Youngstown is marketing luxury suites to help fill the gap. A suite of 14 seats goes for $40,000 for five years.

Mr. Hudson said the ice will be made available for youth and other leagues.

He said he's been working on getting the National Hockey League to help outfit disadvantaged boys and girls to play hockey.

"The Double-A team will be an affiliate to an NHL franchise. We would like to see these youth leagues develop so disadvantaged children can benefit from hockey," Mr. Hudson said.

Miss Kaptur noted the grant was made in the waning days of the Clinton administration and said no grant of such size is available to Toledo.

The Bush administration is seeking to reduce HUD grants to cities by 40 percent, she said, and entertainment uses are a very low priority.

"One of the federal issues we're constantly told is you cannot use money for entertainment, only for economic growth.

"When you look at arenas in today's budgetary climate, I think from a federal standpoint, it would be more difficult," Miss Kaptur said.

Even so, she said she has not been approached by the city of Toledo about arena funding.

"Generally on something like that we would wait for the locality to express an interest in it. They've never said that they want any federal help," Miss Kaptur said.

Toledo has no specific plans yet for a new arena.

A proposal considered by the city in 2003 called for an arena of 8,000 to 10,000 seats, at a cost of $63 million.

Recently, the mayor has contracted with Pizzuti Cos. of Columbus to develop an arena and is awaiting a feasibility study, due May 1.

Jim Russell, Pizzuti director of land development, said the study is examining the cost of building an arena, including different sites, and how it could be paid for.

He said he believes a strong case could be made that an arena is economic development for Toledo. "Potentially, federal funding could be gap financing," Mr. Russell said.

Mayor Ford said the city will pursue "an inventory" of funding sources, including state, local, and federal funds, naming rights, corporate sponsorships, suite sales, concession contracts, and tax increment financing.

In an interview with The Blade, Mayor McKelvey volunteered some advice for Toledo. He advised Toledo to follow Youngstown's lead and own its arena outright, rather than turn it over to what he called an "independent do-good body."

"We own it, period. The management company is working for us. We can get rid of them at any time for no cause," Mr. McKelvey said.

"The mayor and City Council is going to be held accountable. Why would you turn it over to someone who's not accountable?"

Contact Tom Troy at:

tomtroy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6058.



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