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EDITORIAL: Westfield officials didn’t play it straight

November 1, 2014

The city of Westfield was far too quiet about the financing structure for its proposed $20 million indoor soccer facility at Grand Park, and many Westfield taxpayers have a bait-and-switch taste in their mouths as a result.

Officials waited until two weeks before the City Council’s Oct. 27 vote to publicly reveal the project’s proposed agreement, which places financial risk in the lap of Westfield taxpayers, not the facility’s developer as many understood from the city’s June announcement unveiling the project.

In mid-October, the city posted a statement on its website saying it planned to lease the facility from South Bend developer Holladay Properties, but officials didn’t publish a press release with that information nor make a public statement.

A lease arrangement was a fundamental shift from the impression city officials left when they announced the facility with great fanfare during a June 21 press conference. Mayor Andy Cook said then that the facility would be privately financed and the city would work to find an operator for it.

The agreement the council approved 6-1 on Oct. 27 calls for Holladay to secure a loan to build the 370,000-square-foot facility—which will boast three full-size soccer fields and a restaurant—then lease it to the city for nearly $2 million a year for five years, with payments slowly increasing for another two decades. The deal also requires Westfield to cover operating expenses.

City officials plan to fulfill their lease payments by subleasing the building to its various users. They say three deals are already pending, including one with a manager of field activities and another with food-service provider Jonathan Byrd’s, for a family restaurant.

The merits of the Westfield/Holladay deal are in hot debate. To no one’s surprise, soccer organizations and Hamilton County tourism officials support the arrangement. Several spoke passionately for the agreement at the Oct. 27 council meeting, citing the sizable crowds Grand Park has attracted in its first year of operation and emphasizing the need for an indoor facility to make the park viable year-round. To be sure, the park already has demonstrated a sizable economic punch, drawing upward of 800,000 visitors and boosting Hamilton County hotel demand 9 percent.

But critics question how far the city can carry its “If you build it, they will come” philosophy, pointing out that officials continue to deepen taxpayers’ financial commitment to Grand Park—hanging Westfield’s economic-development future on the park’s success.

The city’s gamble might very well pay off. Grand Park’s indoor soccer facility might be exactly the hit its supporters expect. But the project is a huge undertaking for a city the size of Westfield. Taxpayers should have had more time to process the details and ask questions.•

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