August 23, 2018 11:03 PM
The departure of the Rochester Rhinos soccer team from Marine Auto Stadium, and the city's ongoing financial obligation to maintain the stadium, were a stark contrast from rosy predictions about the team, and the facility, by boosters and city leaders.
"We were optimistic," said former Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson.
"It has had a long, traveled history. There is no doubt about it," said Molly Clifford, a city councilmember whose district houses the stadium and who confronted the prospect of a large potential economic driver sitting vacant and unused.
The picture looked very different a decade and a half ago.
New York State had come up with $15 million for stadium construction and developers like Rochester Rhinos co-owner Frank DuRoss had promised private investment would cover the rest of the costs and any operating expenses, leaving no obligation or liability for the city.
"For PaeTec Park, there is no subsidy from the taxpayer beyond the original $15 million," DuRoss declared at the time.
Johnson too was emphatic that the City of Rochester would end up with no part of the tab.
"I can't envision any scenario where the public would ever have to subsidize PaeTec Park," he told the Rochester City Newspaper in September of 2003."They're not going to be left holding the bag."
Nonetheless, city taxpayers were indeed left holding the bag after DuRoss left the project.
The Rhinos ran into financial trouble and the city took over the stadium in 2009.
Maintenance of the facility, for which the city was supposed to be paying nothing, ended up costing Rochester $600,000 a year according to city representatives.
Fifteen years later, Johnson said the stadium agreement, as he knew it, included no provisions for the city to assume ownership of the site and guessed that the provision that put the stadium back into the city's hands had come about as the final agreements were cemented after he had left office.
Johnson did remember great hope and enthusiasm for the stadium plan at the time.
"The Red Wings were a very strong sports team. The Amerks were a very strong sports team," he recalled. "We had this notion that we could build ourselves as a sports center, as a mid-sized city with with strong sports teams."
"The stadium was the big thing for this neighborhood that we were all looking forward to it," said Tom Labue, who was opening his bar, the Flat Iron Café, on State Street a decade and a half ago, at the same time the stadium came to the Lyell Avenue corridor. "There just seem to be a level of excitement across the neighborhood. Not just the neighborhood. I would say citywide."
City representatives pointed to changing demographics in the city and flagging interest in professional soccer as catalysts for the field's decline, as well as a jarring contrast between more accommodating accommodations, amenities, entertainment and food during early Rhinos soccer games at Frontier Field and sparser, cheaper, versions on hand once the soccer field was hosting games.
"Certainly, the original owner, Frank DuRoss at that time, really did not do the city any favors in terms of the way he both build the stadium and consequently left us in the dust," Clifford complained.
Johnson said the epic bad fortunes of the city's business community played a role too.
"You're selling luxury boxes and you're requiring a lot of corporate support," he said. "We all know what happened to our corporate community in the last decade or so. It's shrunk."
Labue looked instead to changing city leadership and changing priorities.
"The stadium had us moving in the right direction," he said. "When the support shifted and the development projects moved elsewhere, the stadium seemed to decline."
Clifford took solace from the fact that, while the city faced ongoing expenses to maintain the stadium, the facility was fully paid for and did not carry a debt load.
Still, she predicted some capital investment might be called for to properly maximize the value of the stadium as a community resource.
"Obviously, we want to protect the taxpayers and not sending a lot of money into it," she said. "But at the same time, we really want business owners who hopefully can do everything they can to bring people into the neighborhood."
Updated: August 23, 2018 11:03 PM
Created: August 23, 2018 09:18 PM
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