Another city. Another publicly funded stadium. Another neoliberal Trojan horse. Another public project that will produce private profit, gentrification, and displacement. All done in the name of the beautiful game, soccer.
This time it’s Cincinnati, a city where 53.1 percent of the children live in poverty The City Council has, by a narrow and deeply contentious 5-4 vote, pledged $34.8 million to building a 21,000-seat soccer stadium on the city’s West End for FC Cincinnati.
For those unfamiliar with Cincinnati, the West End is an area of traditionally low-income housing that has in recent years felt the sting of the kinds of development deals and “revitalization projects” that have pushed longtime—primarily black—residents out of their homes. The construction of this soccer stadium could only grease the rails of that process.
Tuesday night saw a very intense two-and-a-half-hour meeting about the deal at the West End Community Council. Its president, Keith Blake, now faces possible impeachment for signing off on the project. People feel that they had no say in a deal that will intimately affect their community and that, In the words of one West End resident, Ernestine Hill, as reported by the Cincinnati Enquirer, “We need to tear this up and start all over again.”
The skepticism and anger over this soccer stadium deal is understandable. As Neil DeMause wrote on his indispensable stadium blog Field of Schemes,
That’s a whole bunch of money from a city that’s already poured even more than that into poorly received stadium deals for the Reds and Bengals—the latter of which famously required selling a public hospital to pay off—and it only took place after team owners arm-twisted a final vote by hashing out a last-second community benefits agreement to provide $100,000 a year for local organizations and provide some community oversight of elements like lighting, parking, and traffic. But at least West End residents got some say in what they’d get out of having their local high school football stadium torn down and rebuilt to make way for an MLS [Major League Soccer] stadium, right?
In addition to the usual graft and empty promises that accompany deals of this nature, there are widespread suspicions that the police have been enlisted in the stadium/gentrification push, as they were reported to be handing out flyers on the West End streets calling the neighborhood a “high violent crime area.” The rumors are that they were doing this to lower property values in an effort to make the area even more attractive for stadium and real-estate developers. These rumors were so pervasive that the police had to respond on Facebook with the message, “The only team the Cincinnati Police Department roots for is our residents!” That even the police had to publicly deny that they were working hand in hand with stadium-pushing City Council people and urban-development magnates speaks volumes.
I spoke to longtime independent Cincinnati radio host Nathan Ivey, who said to me, “It’s hard to believe that at a time when Cincinnati has an affordable housing crisis, concerns about gentrification and huge inequities between black and white households, that city leadership has chosen to invest in another sports stadium.”
He then pointed out another startling connection, regarding the general manager of Cincinnati’s Football Club. Jeff Berding. Berding has been the GM of FC Cincinnati since 2015. Before that he was on the Cincinnati City Council from 2005–11. And in the decade before that? He worked for the Cincinnati Bengals, helping usher in the publicly funded Paul Brown stadium in 2000.
Ivey says, “Twenty years ago, Jeff ‘the Stadium Whisperer’ Berding was a part of the political machine that led to the most lopsided NFL stadium deal in history. Despite that history, Berding was able to successfully spin his tale of soccer success into gold for the ownership group. It has been reported the FC Cincinnati is going to avoid paying millions of dollars in property taxes because a nonprofit entity will own, then lease the property to FC Cincinnati and thus, avoiding taxes.The game is rigged—but does anyone really care?”
This is truly the pivotal question. People living on the West End and activists in Cincinnati certainly care. But as politicians turn a deaf ear and stadiums become a substitute for urban policy, the question of “who cares” becomes a question of life and death and who gets to have ownership of the direction of the city of Cincinnati.