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Factors forced McKelvey to shift stance

Saturday, January 31, 2004

The mayor says weeks of uncertainty actually improved the arena proposal.
YOUNGSTOWN -- First, a congressional clerk forgets the amendment last month to free up the city's $25 million federal grant beyond a downtown arena.
That was bad enough, says Mayor George M. McKelvey.
Then a second blunder emerges in Washington last week.
That turned McKelvey 180 degrees.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development admitted it erred. The agency had said only a simple amendment to the legislation was needed. Instead, HUD corrected its advice, saying a re-appropriations process is required that could take nine months or more with no guarantees.
In less than a week, McKelvey switched positions. He moved from big supporter of flexible spending for the grant on several downtown projects to strong advocate for using the $25 million to build an arena immediately.
"The second screw-up was one too many," he said.
A series of obstacles
The federal grant has taken a roundabout route since being secured in mid-2000. McKelvey himself described his handling as taking a measured approach to obstacles as they occurred.
There was the chaos after the dismantling of the arena board. There was the breakdown in talks with the first developer. There was the uncertainty cast over the project in late November when word came that spending the $25 million soon might be made more flexible.
The mayor said he "reacted accordingly, not overreacted" throughout.
That's why McKelvey's swift turnabout this week might have been surprising to some.
But it shouldn't be, he said.
The city has pursued building an arena the whole time, he said. McKelvey said he simply embraced the obvious of building the arena when it became clear the money wouldn't be available for anything but.
City council's finance committee agreed earlier this week. The full council is expected to endorse the move Wednesday.
Beeghly Center proposal
McKelvey thought highly of an idea floated by Youngstown State University. YSU officials proposed using about $8 million of the funds to convert Beeghly Center into a convocation center.
The mayor liked the idea of accomplishing an arena-type project and having money to eliminate downtown eyesores and create development. That was in the context of using the remaining funds for other downtown projects, however.
Council members thought less of the plan. YSU wasn't even uttered as council talked about the project earlier this week.
David C. Sweet, YSU president, said in a written statement Friday that the school has long believed that the city needs a convocation-type center. The university proposed the Beeghly option only when the original arena concept appeared tenuous, Sweet said. YSU is just glad such a building appears on the horizon.
"We are pleased that the city has a viable option to proceed along the lines of the original concept," he said.
Proposal improves
Weeks of uncertainty since November actually improved the arena proposal, McKelvey said. He calls it the silver lining of a dark cloud.
Negotiations with developers had long focused on all $25 million being available for the project.
The notion of spreading the spending around downtown gave developers pause, McKelvey said.
Indeed, the city earlier this month proposed putting just $7 million toward the project. The developer, Global Entertainment of Phoenix, countered with a proposal saying the company could build an arena with $12 million of the city's money.
Global lucked out since it's become clear all the money must be spent on the arena, McKelvey said. Meantime, the firm's proposal improved, he said.
For example, the site plan makes better use of the space, he said. The developer also has pledged, orally, to protect the city from construction overruns and operating shortfalls, McKelvey said.
"There is no question in my mind that when the development group saw the potential of the project failing, their pencils got sharper," he said. "Their proposal to the city to build an arena between the bridges became more creative and financially attractive."