Tuesday, April 01, 2008

MECA Finally Agrees to New CWS Ballpark

Finally after months of public squabbling over seemingly minor issues, the city and MECA finally came to an agreement today on placing a new ballpark for the College World Series in the Qwest Center parking lots. Barring any more surprises (and for some reason, I won't be surprised if there isn't another "surprise"), this should be the last major hurdle to getting the new stadium built.

It looks like the City Council is going to be on board, as it seems that only Garry Gernandt (he of the Don Quixote-ish "Save The Parking Lots in South Omaha Front Yards" Committee) is vocally still opposing this proposal. Omaha's "citizens of substance" (as Bill Byrne would call them) all seem to be on board, meaning that the private funds are likely already committed to this project. The only question are the hotheads mounting a recall petition drive, and I haven't seen much evidence that they've had much success in getting signatures except from the core group that protested the stadium at all the public forums.

So what does this agreement between the City and MECA mean? The agreement focuses on two points:
  • The city won't develop any other Qwest Center lots without agreement from MECA
  • MECA gains the rights to develop a full-service hotel on the site of the old Swanson frozen foods plant at 10th & Cass.
In the grand scheme of things, these aren't major concessions by the city. With a 24,000 seat stadium and 18,000 seat arena in that area, parking needs are only going to increase as time goes on. Any further development will increase the needs for parking, which will make it difficult to subtract parking spaces. However, the original plans for the Qwest Center show development along 10th Street, so never rule anything out. Any development will mean that we'll see parking garages developed on the existing Qwest Center lots...which is bound to happen anyway if the convention center expands. And let's face it, with all the animosity MECA put forth on this proposal, it was going to be even more difficult to force MECA to do anything they didn't want to do in the future. So that's not a huge concession to MECA.

As for the convention hotel, the major complaint about the Hilton hotel attached to the Qwest Center is that it's too small. In his last days in office, Hal Daub proposed a $90+ million Marriott high-rise hotel with 600 rooms. When Mike Fahey took over, he rejected that idea and went with a $65 million Hilton with 450 rooms. Some have criticized Fahey for choosing the smaller Hilton, but it's hard to argue that the Hilton wasn't the better value. ($25 million for another 150 rooms? Yikes!) I'm not convinced that those 150 rooms made much of a difference in conferences choosing Omaha, but adding another 500 or so rooms in a second hotel would probably answer those questions. Certainly with the College World Series adding to demand, a second downtown hotel is likely much more viable now, and if that means that more conventions at the Qwest Center, that's another win-win for both sides. And since the city was already working on attracting a hotel to the Swanson plant property, this isn't much of a concession to MECA.

I think there are some lingering concerns about how the MECA board publicly disagreed with the city in this debate. (Withdrawing from the Stadium Oversight committee, voting "No" on the stadium even before the proposal was finalized, grandstanding to the media to add to the discord on this issue.) That's part of the reason I still kind of expect this agreement to fall apart at some point in the future, only to be rescued once again at some point since too many of Omaha's civic leaders have already agreed this is the right plan for Omaha.

The next issue is getting the MECA board to officially endorse this deal. (The next opportunity for this to fall apart.) After that, the Mayor and CWS, Incorporated can approach the NCAA to get agreement on a new long-term contract. I think the bar is set on a 20 year contract as a bare, absolute minimum.... and I expect the city to push hard for a 30+ year arrangement. With everything this city has gone through to make this deal happen, here's hoping the NCAA recognizes the need to lock this deal up for a long, long time to prevent it from falling apart again. A 30 or 35 year agreement goes a long way towards ending all of the discord in this city.

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