Columbus' plan for Mapfre sports park separated from Crew practice facility in talks with state
Land for the city of Columbus' proposed recreational sports park at Mapfre Stadium, the major piece of the new Crew Stadium deal that wasn't supposed to directly benefit the team, is being negotiated separately from the team's adjacent practice facility, according to a member of the public board that must approve the deal.
Although the city has no deal for needed state land for the sports park, the Crew SC's $29 million, private Mapfre practice center is under construction under an agreement with the state of Ohio that has expired once, with a current two-month extension set to expire again at the end of November.
Negotiations underway for state land needed for projects
Neither the city nor the team has a long-term lease for the state land they need for the projects.
The temporary "right of entry" agreement allowing the team to start construction contains a "return-to-ground provision," meaning that "if the lease does not go through, the Crew will be required to return the property to the state as it was prior to the Crew’s construction work," say minutes from the May board meeting of the Ohio Expositions Center, which controls the historic State Fairgrounds land. "The Expo Center has the right to choose not to have the work removed."
The land for the team's new facilities is being negotiated separately from the December 2018 proposal to convert the bulk of the needed parking lot into a city of Columbus Recreation Department sports park, said Steve Reinhard, a member of the Ohio Expositions Authority board.
"They were presented as one, and now they've been separated into the two different projects," Reinhard said is his understanding.
But the city's sports park and the Crew's private Mapfre practice facilities always were presented to the public as a single project – with the sports park one of the key points that made the public's $146 million investment in saving the professional soccer team worth it, bringing much-needed green space to Mapfre's surrounding urban neighborhoods.
What is holding up the team's long-term Mapfre lease?
What is holding up the team's long-term Mapfre lease is unknown, but comments made by Reinhard at the board's May 21 meeting suggest that the disagreement is over rent payments.
"Mr. Reinhard asked that if the lease negotiations are going so well, why the Crew management doesn’t have an agreed-upon dollar amount for the lease of the property," the minutes say. "Mr. Reinhard said that he feels we are losing some of our negotiating power once they begin working on the site."
Rent payments from the team to the Expo Center "was one of the issues" holding up a deal, Reinhard said. "I think it was a dollar amount."
The team and the city "are working together to negotiate separate leases on a parallel path," said Robin Davis, spokeswoman for Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther.
The city's piece of the project isn't scheduled to start until next year, but because the public would be investing significant dollars, "it is important the city has a long-term lease to protect the public’s investment," Davis added.
Even though the practice facility is well under construction on about 16 acres of the fairgrounds parking lot, the team "agrees to return or restore the property to substantially its original condition" within 30 days after expiration of its temporary right of entry contract if it ultimately can't reach a long-term lease.
Neither the team nor the state would say what's holding up a long-term deal, with both citing only the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. But the pandemic didn't prevent the parties from hammering out the complex right-of-entry agreement that was signed in late May, which spells out terms such as that the team was allowed to demolish, at its expense, a large state salt barn, relocate a seven-acre rainwater retention pit and other items.
When the first agreement expired at the end of September, the parties signed another agreement to extend it until the end of this month. Also, the agreement can be terminated by either side upon 30 days written notice in the case of a "material default."
The site west of Mapfre Stadium is fenced off for construction, taking up a total of about 22 acres, including the new rainwater retention pit, already being dug on what originally was announced to be about 1.5 acres of the city's proposed recreation fields.
The entry contract says that extensions can be granted only "so long as state and (team) are, in good faith, negotiating the terms and conditions of the new lease," talks that have been unsuccessful after almost two years.
The commission voted in May to approve the temporary deal, which was signed by Virgil Strickler, general manager of the Ohio Expo Center & State Fair. Strickler has not responded to multiple attempts to get information about the status of the public's land for weeks although his department did provide meeting minutes.
Documents released by the state show that, as it has done with the new downtown Columbus stadium under construction, the team has used its lease of the Mapfre practice facility as collateral on a loan from Goldman Sachs. The Dispatch reported last month that neither the city, nor Franklin County, nor the Confluence Community Authority, which owns both stadiums, is conducting any public oversight on either project, which is being constructed privately by the team.
However, Goldman Sachs built in oversight for its loan to team owner Haslam Sports Group: It hired a construction monitor, the firm Jones Lang LaSalle, which must sign off on team draw-downs of cash for construction, certifying that they are needed for the project and not for work previously paid, documents indicate.
"It would be redundant to hire another construction monitor because we already utilize the services of the Independent Construction Monitor," Davis said.
The city consented to Jones Lang LaSalle's selection under the contractual obligation that the monitor is “selected by the developer’s lenders and otherwise reasonably acceptable to the parties.”
News reports say that former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, Crew owner Jimmy Haslam's brother, once held a financial stake in Jones Lang LaSalle. Team spokesman Peter John-Baptiste, senior vice president of communication for Haslam Sports Group, said the family has no ownership ties over the construction monitor.
"JLL works with Goldman, and that's where the connections to us lie," John-Baptiste said. "They do this work on a great number of stadium projects."