With a new Dispatch report raising questions about Columbus' contributions to the Arena District stadium site, supporters celebrate the next step to a new soccer destination

My path down I-71 toward Thursday’s groundbreaking ceremony for the Arena Distict’s new imperial soccer fortress took me directly past the Columbus Crew’s current home, which got me thinking.

Twenty years ago, when the facility now known as Mapfre Stadium became Major League Soccer’s first soccer-specific stadium, it was a big deal for the league. It was an even bigger deal for the Crew, who had been evicted from Ohio Stadium — their home from 1996 to 1998 — and had seen two ballot proposals for publicly funded stadiums fail, one Downtown and one in Dublin. The team and its fans were so desperate to find a new venue they were even considering a site in London nearly 30 miles outside Downtown.

Out of options, Lamar Hunt opened up his checkbook. Hunt, the late oil baron and football executive perhaps best known for naming the Super Bowl, paid $28.5 million to build Crew Stadium at the state fairgrounds. That was cheap for a major-league sports facility even back then, but it was enough to keep the franchise alive and create an American soccer landmark. For the first but not the last time, the Crew was saved.

Still, you get what you pay for, and Mapfre’s shortcomings eventually made it an albatross for the Crew. As other teams around the league began building flashier and flashier coliseums, Columbus was stuck with its humble abode, a stadium short on amenities and marooned miles from any relevant entertainment district. Location was probably not the only factor contributing to the team’s dwindling attendance, but it surely didn’t help. A few months after the Hunt family's successor, Anthony Precourt, revealed his plan to relocate the team to the queso mecca of Austin, Texas, even the Frisch’s Big Boy out front of Lowe’s had closed.

The universal belief among those in control of the situation — shared by Precourt, MLS corporate and even the team’s new ownership — was that in order to keep up with the rest of the league, the Crew needed a new Downtown stadium. The unprecedented deal to transfer Precourt’s stake in MLS to Austin and sell the Crew’s operating rights to the Haslam and Edwards families was contingent on a new stadium deal before the end of last year. But last October, when the news broke that buyers had emerged to save the Crew, there was little to no progress on a stadium deal.

After weeks of feverish cooperative work across the public and private sectors, such a deal had materialized by early December. The plan was for the Haslam and Edwards families to contribute a combined $230 million to build a new stadium and transform Mapfre into a training facility and community sports park, with Ohio, Franklin County and Columbus all contributing funds, as well.

City officials have always maintained that their $50 million commitment would go toward development and infrastructure in the new Confluence District around the stadium, and toward revamping Mapfre into a training facility and community sports park, but not toward the construction of the new stadium. Columbus development director Steve Schoeny, who became Upper Arlington’s city manager last month, told me last winter, “We’re not investing in the stadium, but we’re investing in things to help the community take advantage of the Crew being here.”

That’s still technically true, but as the Dispatch reported this week, the city will be spending more than $100 million on the project due to a number of additional expenses that have been categorized as unrelated to the stadium despite their proximity to the facility, such as a $25 million parking garage 60 feet from the site.

Some residents had already been alarmed at the public financing for this project, arguing that there are more urgent uses for $50 million in taxpayer money than keeping an under-attended sports franchise in town and helping rich business people get richer. The apparent trickery surrounding the budget has elevated those concerns, even with the Haslam and Edwards families recently increasing their own expenditures by $70 million. (The Crew also doesn’t technically own the stadium site yet, though they released a joint statement with Nationwide Realty Investment Thursday asserting that the deal will close by the end of October.)

As my fellow Alive columnist Scott Woods wrote this week, “The criticism isn’t about people harshing anyone’s good times. It’s about living under a non-representative government. It is, in part, being sold a civic and community movement that only serves itself. It’s about being told by the powers that be that spending your money on stuff like this and brokering bad deals that vacuum taxes into things we can’t approve of is better for you than good schools or fair housing.”

No one’s buzz appeared to have been harshed at Thursday’s ceremony. More than 4,000 people gathered at the new site for the ceremonial groundbreaking, the latest in a series of milestones celebrating the Crew’s unlikely return from the brink of relocation. Along Nationwide Boulevard west of Huntington Park, construction fencing promoted “Columbus’ new icon” opening summer 2021, a stadium that portends to be much more than the glorified stopgap at the Ohio Expo Center.

Just beyond the fence, two goals stood atop a dirt field, supposedly exactly where they’ll be when that land becomes the Crew’s new pitch. Food trucks, beer sales and a merch tent surrounded the gravel area where a stage and grandstand had been erected for the occasion. A photo op allowed fans to pose with prop shovels in front of fancy new stadium renderings that had even some soccer agnostics professing they’re excited to check out a match. Rocking a personalized Crew jersey, DJ Axcess spun party music, including an EDM remix of “Olé, Olé, Olé.”

That’s not to say the budget hullabaloo went unacknowledged at the ceremony. After an introduction from former Crew star and current NBC broadcaster Kyle Martino — who quipped, “I’ve never been so excited to stand in front of a pile of dirt” — Mayor Andy Ginther extolled the Confluence District as a profitable investment, predicting the city’s $113 million investment will infuse $1 billion into the local economy and create 3,200 new jobs. City Council President Shannon Hardin spoke about “transforming empty land Downtown” into a “billion-dollar district.” Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted remarked, “Elected officials are pretty good at listening to mobs of people that want you to fix something.”

The politicians weren’t the only ones on the defensive Thursday. A segment of Crew supporters pointedly turned their backs on MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who famously allied with Precourt before ultimately backing the deal to save the Crew. Beyond the usual platitudes about what an historic day this was, Garber touted his own Columbus bona fides, noting that the first match he attended after becoming commissioner was at Mapfre and that he’s been to more national team games there “than anyone in a suit.”

But the vibes were only positive when Dee Haslam and Dr. Pete Edwards stepped to the podium to the sound of roaring Nordecke cheers. Edwards offered up a refrain of “not without you,” citing contributions from the Save The Crew movement, the Columbus Partnership’s Alex Fischer and Steve Lyons (who recently took over the Crew’s business operations), and even Garber: “His patience and his judgment and his love of the game allowed a conflict to become a celebration.” Haslam’s brief comments focused on the design of the stadium itself, which was drawn up with input from the club’s most ardent supporters. She hopes the building will be extremely loud and look sufficiently “ominous” to opposing teams.

It may look ominous in a different way to critics of the government’s involvement in this ordeal, especially given how quickly the Crew’s last stadium aged out of relevance. Skepticism and even outrage are reasonable considering the sneaky maneuvers behind the scenes. But as someone who was thrilled to see the team saved, who has been attending games since they were playing in the Horseshoe, it was hard not to get swept up in Thursday’s festivities. The story is certainly more complicated than the underdog narrative that has quickly become local folklore, but this sure felt like a happy ending.