Cuyahoga County executive candidates Ronayne and Weingart oppose new debt to renovate Global Center, Budish suggests tying airlift to Marriott hotel

CLEVELAND, Ohio — If the Cuyahoga County Council decides to take on more debt to renovate the Global Center for Health Innovation, it will do so without the support of any of the executive nominees it will work with l ‘next year.

Democrat Chris Ronayne and Republican Lee Weingart both say they oppose borrowing $31 million as part of a total $46 million plan to marry the Global Center to the adjoining Huntington Convention Center and transform into meeting space to attract more future events.

Weingart has been adamant since the project was proposed that he wouldn’t spend a penny on the failed Medical Mart-turned-Global Center, despite his role in enabling the county to rebuild it in the early 2000s. .

“I am irrevocably opposed,” Weingart told cleveland.com on Wednesday. “This is a vanity project for Cuyahoga County, and we are currently unable to fund vanity projects.”

His opponent, Ronayne, has been more reserved, advocating in the past to keep the county-owned building, which he also helped bring to Cleveland, and reuse it to some degree as part of the convention complex, but not up to $46 million. . Now, as the council plans to indebt the county with more debt — the majority of which is already tied to paying off the convention complex, including the Global Center and adjoining Hilton hotel — Ronayne said he can’t. not support it.

Ronayne criticized what he sees as rushed spending ahead of a change in administration and said he believes funding should go to the highest priority needs first. He gave the example of finding safe housing for children in custody, who live at the county’s Division of Child and Family Services office. Cleveland.com recently reported allegations of unsafe conditions at the facility, where children assault staff and the daycare is used as a recruiting office for human trafficking or rape.

“I think we should slow this down and re-examine what is really needed in terms of community priorities,” Ronayne said. “There are just pressing needs with some of our public facilities currently being prioritized, and that’s not to say visitor infrastructure isn’t important and those things can’t happen, I just think that it is a process that needs to be thoroughly discussed with the public in terms of use, who pays, who benefits, costs, needs and what is really taken into account.

He envisions a future in which tenants will fill the space and pay for their own renovations, freeing up county money for other needs.

The building is already available for rent and at least one tenant operates from offices on the second floor, but it has otherwise been vacant for years. Since the start of the pandemic, its primary use has been to temporarily house Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas jury selection and sometimes 4th floor trials. The court is currently seeking to extend this contract until the end of the year.

Convention officials, including the board that governs the building, believe its “best use” is more convention space. They are looking to double the junior ballroom at 22,000 square feet to allow for flexible meeting space, convert upper floors into meeting rooms, create an outdoor venue above the ballroom, and install stairs mechanisms to more efficiently move visitors between the four floors.

Destination Cleveland CEO and CCCFDC Board Member David Gilbert says these changes will help Cleveland’s convention business stay competitive with other cities like Indianapolis, Columbus and Pittsburgh. Meeting planners today are looking for rooms around 3,000 to 6,000 square feet, preferably with natural light, he said, but the convention center only has two, and two others in the Global Center ballroom.

Most other competitors offer eight, allowing them to host multiple events or meetings at once, Gilbert said.

Weingart, however, argues that the county already has five ballrooms within 1,000 yards of the convention center, as well as additional meeting rooms, once you factor in the adjoining Hilton and other hotels. downtown.

The Hilton hotel’s website offers 18 meeting rooms and 45,000 square feet of event space, including a 20,000 square foot “Superior Ballroom” that can be divided into smaller spaces. All of this is already in “seamless connection” with the convention center, the website says.

Within a mile are three other hotels with their own event spaces:

  • The Westin Hotel Cleveland has 18 meeting rooms and a total of 20,000 square feet of event space, including two 4,000 square foot ballrooms in the desired size range
  • The Drury Plaza Hotel has three meeting rooms, the largest of which measures 2,400 square feet
  • Cleveland Marriott Downtown at Key Tower has 15 meeting rooms and 18,000 square feet of event space, including a 10,000 square foot ballroom and two nearly 2,500 square foot lounges.

Weingart called it “insensitive” for the county to spend money on another ballroom based on the “speculative hope” that it will increase the number of conventions held in Cleveland or the revenue generated by these events, none of which he believes ultimately benefit the residents. pay the bill.

“If these two facilities (the convention center and the Hilton hotel) were bringing in enough money, we wouldn’t be using the tax money to pay down the debt,” Weingart said. “But because they’re not for-profit businesses, because they’re losing money every year, taxpayers are struggling with servicing the debt of these two facilities.” This is a net negative for the people of Cuyahoga County.

Ronayne called for an audit of downtown meeting spaces.

“We really need to know what we’re trying to solve before we put the cart before the horse,” he said.

Executive Armond Budish is moving forward.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, he defended proposed renovations to the Global Center and discussed the potential for even greater spending. He referred to an idea apparently proposed by Councilman Jack Schron to build a skybridge from the convention center to the Marriott hotel across the street. This would allow visitors to move between the two buildings without having to go outside, especially in winter.

“We’ve thought about it and would like some additional feedback from any of you,” Budish told council members. “It sounds like a good idea, and if we have to do it, now would be the time.”

It remains unclear how the county plans to pay for any improvements.

While the council has pledged $5 million in stimulus dollars for the renovations and is now considering borrowing another $31 million, it has not said how it plans to pay off that debt. The documents state that no tax revenue will be used to pay debt service, but do not suggest any other source.

The resolution is currently due before the full board committee for consideration, at which time funding plans can be discussed.

If the funding comes from the county, even if it’s not tax revenue, it still comes out of residents’ pockets, Weingart argued. All county money is public money, he said.

If it’s suggested that revenue from using the convention center will cover the debt, as convention officials have suggested in the past, at least in part, it’s too risky, Weingart said. Who will foot the bill if revenues don’t work out as expected? He asked.

Ronayne agreed, saying “there seems to be a lot of guesswork” about how the debt will be repaid.

Residents have already been burned by the county’s outlandish promises and are continuing to pay them, Weingart said, pointing to servicing the county’s nearly $50 million annual debt on the convention center complex and hotel. The community will no longer be fooled, he said.

“All of these projects were meant to be for-profit ventures for Cuyahoga County and ended up being projects that burdened taxpayers with massive debt,” Weingart said. “So no one should trust the county when it says it will generate new or increased tax revenue to pay off those obligations.”

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