Clevelanders want more from Gilbert for public funds

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Detroit — Cleveland-area residents made the trek to Detroit to convince Dan Gilbert to invest in Ohio neighborhoods if he wants to use public money to fund renovations at the Cleveland Cavaliers’ arena.

About 150 members of the Greater Cleveland Congregations rode in three buses Tuesday morning to make their pitch, gathering outside the headquarters of Gilbert’s Quicken Loans Inc. in downtown Detroit.

Between chants of “not all in,” and “we will win,” faith leaders from Cleveland and Detroit called for Gilbert as well as city of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County officials to find an equal amount of money to fund new mental health facilities, new job programs and blight removal programs in Cleveland neighborhoods.

This comes at a time when Gilbert and the Cavaliers, the NBA team he owns, want to fund the renovations at Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland. Those talking points echoed complaints in Detroit, where some say downtown business leaders are getting tax breaks and incentives on million-dollar buildings, even as city neighborhoods are riddled with blight.

The group traveled to Detroit because members said Gilbert has refused to meet with them. The group has met with representatives from the Cavaliers.

“We’re not opposed to making The Q look better,” said the Rev. Linda Robinson, who traveled from Cleveland. “What we are against is any deal that continues this tale of two cities.”

The Cavaliers organization has said the renovations will cost $140 million. It wants half of that paid through existing taxes and a new rental agreement, but if interest on the loans is included, the bill for the renovations — which include adding a new atrium and public spaces — jumps to more than $282 million, leaving the public on the hook for $160 million, according to the congregations group.

The deal is under review by the Cuyahoga County Council, which is scheduled to vote Tuesday. The Cleveland City Council could vote on the package in April. The Cavaliers hope to start the renovations this summer.

Before the rally, around 40 members of the new Detroit Regional Interfaith Voice for Equity wondered whether the Cleveland project was similar to public financing on Little Caesars Arena, which pulled millions in tax dollars to fund part of the construction.

“If you’re going to pull this kind of crap in Cleveland, you’ll pull this crap in Detroit,” said the Rev. Greg Larsen, from a church in Rochester. Carsen pointed to Gilbert’s recent push to bring a Major League Soccer team to Detroit — and build that team a billion dollar stadium — as a chance for the city and county to push for greater community benefits than in deals past.

The Cleveland group met the Detroit group in Campus Martius park outside Quicken Loans headquarters before noon. After laying out the group’s demands during a rally, leaders from both the Detroit and Cleveland organizations delivered to Josh McManus, Rock Ventures COO, a letter addressed to Gilbert , outside the One Campus Martius building.

Those who spoke over a megaphone to the group said they just wanted Gilbert to come talk to them about potential community investment. The group is willing to figure out a way to make it work, said Donna Weinberger, a representative from Kol HaLev, a Cleveland Jewish community.

Representatives from Gilbert’s Detroit-based companies and the Cleveland Cavaliers declined to comment. On a website devoted to the project, Gilbert’s organization argues that the arena is “one of Greater Cleveland’s most significant economic drivers. Transforming The Q — which is owned by the public — will keep it competitive and protect the investment the public made when it was built in 1994.”

The arena is one of the oldest in the NBA.

But the arena will keep making money with or without a new atrium, said Cleveland resident Brenda McFall, adding that her neighborhood needs some abandoned homes knocked down.

“They want us to pay taxes for it, but I can’t even afford to go to a game,” she said.

Many of those gathered in the park Tuesday said they want Cuyahoga County — or Gilbert himself — to pump money into the neighborhoods to boost blight removal.

“Our city needs to be repaired, it needs to be revitalized,” said Victoria Taylor of Cleveland. “We want to see what happened in Detroit for Cleveland.”

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau