All Stars, hardball, and Cordish

The Ballpark Village propertys biggest claim to fame so far was this Cubs Suck message an industrious fan walked into it last winter.
The Ballpark Village property's biggest claim to fame so far was this "Cubs Suck" message an industrious fan walked into it last winter.

The following wasn’t written for the newspaper, and ventures outside the realm of sports, into a personal reaction to a news story from Louisville this week.

On Tuesday, the eyes of the sports world will turn to St. Louis for the annual Major League Baseball All-Star game.

St. Louis, meanwhile, will hope not too many out-of-town eyes turn to the vacant lot next door to sparkling new Busch Stadium.

That’s where a $550 million “Ballpark Village” is supposed to be drawing people to shops and entertainment options galore. Instead, it’s a parking lot. And a softball field. And that’s an improvement. Until last summer, it was an eyesore, with debris from the demolition of the old stadium junking up the joint. One alderman called it their “Baghdad on Broadway.”

For St. Louis, which desperately wanted the project completed in time for the All-Star game, to not even have it begun is a matter of great frustration.

And what does this have to do with anyone in Louisville? This: The property is being jointly developed, if you want to call it that, by the Cardinals and The Cordish Group, who entered an agreement almost four years ago.

Be warned. This is where we step off the sports bus for a moment. Unless you consider corporate hardball a sport.

Cordish is the same outfit that took a $950,000 “forgivable” loan from the city of Louisville to rework the storefront of the old Lucky Strike Bowling lanes into a sports bar at its Fourth Street Live property. But when The Courier-Journal asked the city to demonstrate how Cordish had spent that public money, it didn’t answer for three months.

Finally, when the newspaper said it was going to press with a story reporting that the city couldn’t account for how the money was spent, it produced a letter, dated July 10, from Cordish, saying the company had spent the money in accordance with the loan agreement, but that specifics of how the money was spent were “proprietary.”

(The foot-dragging, by the way, is nothing new where Cordish is involved. When The St. Louis Post-Dispatch requested public documents of negotiations between Cordish and Centene Corp., an insurance company that was looking at building a headquarters in Ballpark Village, the request was put in on Jan. 9 of this year, and not fulfilled until March 26, hours before Centene announced it was backing out of the deal.)

Of more concern, however, is the notion that Cordish can take the public’s money, then thumb its nose when the public wants to see how it is spent.

With the All-Star game taking place next door to a Cordish sandlot on Tuesday, it might be worth considering the company’s game plan.

The group aggressively pursues huge fees and tax breaks from cities, and has delivered some impressive downtown developments. It also is big on hitting cities up for more tax breaks than originally offered, and when business goes badly, on blaming cities for shortcomings at its developments and even berating them.

There was a scathing email from company president David Cordish to Kansas City officials, some sentences in all caps, demanding more of a police presence and scolding the city for not having lured a pro sports team to the Sprint Center, adjacent to its $850 million Power & Light District in Kansas City. (Louisville should probably brace for the same lecture once this city’s downtown arena is up and running.)

The Kansas City development is nice, but it is, in the words of a feature story in the Portland Oregonian newspaper earlier this year, “hemorrhaging taxpayer money,” while noting that, “Cordish has sued Jackson County to lower its property tax assessment in the district and has developed a local reputation for hardball negotiating and tin-eared community relations.”

There was another lawsuit being pressed by Cordish over a dilapidated mall in Niagara Falls, N.Y.  The mayor there, Paul Dyster, actually made a tough stance with Cordish part of his campaign. Both sides have since backed off of lawsuits in an effort to work things out.

Always, it seems, Cordish lays the blame on someone else. And now there’s this insult in Louisville.

But while Cordish has been defended by Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, reaction elsewhere has been harsh.

The Post-Dispatch reported that St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay balked when Cordish asked the city to guarantee to make up the difference if Ballpark Village’s revenue’s fell short of projections.

“If Cordish is looking for a no-risk, high-reward scenario, I don’t think that is possible and certainly not going to happen on the backs of the taxpayers,” Slay’s chief of staff told the paper in March of 2008. “. . . We’ve made it very clear to Cordish that there is no more public subsidy available. The ball is in their court.”

St. Louis alderman Fred Wessels told the paper at that time, “Cordish was sold to the city by the Cardinals as a developer with great retail relationships, firm financial footing and the ability to get large-scale developments like this one done. In my opinion, Cordish has not performed. As difficult as it might be at this time, I think the Cardinals and the city should look at another developer.”

Of course, it seems that there’s always more public subsidy available. The latest in St. Louis — Ballpark Village is still awaiting approval from Missouri state government, which must approve $188 million in public financing before bonds can be sold.

In Kansas City, mayor Mark Funkhouser called the Cordish development “a good product,” but told The Oregonian, “It’s never going to make money. I can’t imagine how it could make money.”

And the latest here in Louisville? The conjunction is too tempting to pass up. In the same week that Cordish told Louisvillians that their $950,000 in public money was none of their business, the city’s annual Lebowski Fest began.

I can only say this. If Cordish is allowed to continue in the arrogant fashion it displayed this week here and in the past elsewhere, this group and anyone who chooses to align with it will, surely, be entering a world of pain.

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One thought on “All Stars, hardball, and Cordish

  1. Eric,

    First of all, I’m really glad to find this blog. I’ve enjoyed your writing for some time, and am looking forward to reading more of your non-sports work.

    Your work on Cordish is great, and I’m going to link to it. Do you find it interesting, though, that Cordish is also getting into racetracks? I’m sure you know they’ve made an offer on Pimlico, if my memory serves. They have at least one other development that ties together a racetrack, casino, and multi-purpose mall, I belive.

    So — any thought that they may be looking at Kentucky and the casino / slots bills to see if they can move into a similar arrangement here? Perhaps buy Turfway and put a casino with it?

    I’ve done a little digging in KREF to see if Cordish execs show up as donors, but no oil strike yet. I’d be interested to know, though, if David Cordish has been seen at any of our tracks.

    Keep up the good work. I’ll be back to read more. Thanks!

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