Nationwide Arena, Columbus, Ohio.
There are 14 publicly-owned sports venues in Ohio housing either a major league or minor league franchise that enjoy tax-exempt status. Don Brown believes that number should be 15.
“Nationwide Arena is the only publicly-owned sports venue that was not exempt out of the 15,” said Brown, executive director of the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority (FCCFA), a joint agency representing the city of Columbus and Franklin County that serves as public owner of the venue that is home to the Columbus Blue Jackets of the National Hockey League.
The sense of urgency is heightened following a year in which the arena will owe property taxes for the first time after a 15-year, 99-percent abatement. It is uncertain how much would be saved with an exemption due to a dispute in the valuation of a venue that cost $165 million to build in 2000 and was sold for $42.5 million in 2012 when the FCCFA purchased the facility from Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. and Dispatch Printing Co.
“We believe all should be on equal tax footing in order to be competitive and have parity,” Brown said of his authority’s unanimous resolution to urge members of the Ohio General Assembly to change the Ohio law. “That was our goal. We are asking for the Assembly to amend the state law to extend the tax exemption to Nationwide Arena.”
Brown said that at the same time the FCCFA has offered to enter into a new agreement with the Columbus City Schools under which the Authority as the new owner would continue to pay the city schools the amount they receive on average every year over the life of the abatement term that expires this year.
“We recognized that the previous owner during the abatement period was making a payment in lieu of taxes to the Columbus City Schools each year,” Brown said. “In seeking tax exemption ourselves, we said that we did not want to do that on the backs of the city schools.
“We did some research that also disclosed that some other pro sports venues in the state also have payment-in-lieu arrangements in place with their local school systems, perhaps for the same reason. I’m not saying all 14 do. I just know that several of the comparable or similar size communities had payment-in-lieu arrangements in place. That’s our goal.”
Brown added that the list of venues does not include the likes of the Schottenstein Center at The Ohio State University in Columbus.
“The Schottenstein Center is owned and operated by The Ohio State University as an instrument of the State of Ohio and is tax exempt,” concurred venue Associate Vice President Xen Riggs. “There is no relationship between the two arenas and no impact or relevance on us.”
Brown said there has been only mild resistance expressed about his Authority’s request.
“There might have been one stakeholder or another or one citizen or another who expressed concern and wanted to know why this wasn’t addressed in 2012 when the arena became publicly owned,” he said. “Second, some have expressed concern that for whatever the merits are of the case we are making, it’s different. It’s a change. Some people resist change.”
Brown said that he talked with some of the principals involved in 2012 who said they expected the issue to be addressed but that the timing was not right to discuss while the abatement agreement was still in place.
“It was left to another day, as it were,” he said.
Brown added that the issue of venue upgrades is a separate one to be tackled. He acknowledged that a permanent tax exemption would not free up significant new money but that “we know that a tax exemption is important to meet or beat the fan experience and also to meet league standards. We intend to address and find a method to fully fund capital improvements next.”
Those improvements will be accomplished in concert with the other arena stakeholders including the Blue Jackets, former owner Nationwide, and the University.
“We have formed an organization called Columbus Arena Management with the four parties involved including us to market and manage both arenas,” Brown said. “That work is led by Xen Riggs and has been very, very successful. It clearly benefits both venues.”
Brown said the goal is to have the vote by the end of this calendar year. Brown works for a board which must give approval and the Columbus school superintendent works for a board that must do the same. Then it is up to the legislature to approve the change in law.
“If we fall short, we’ll try again next year,” Brown said. “If we run out of time … we’ll be back next year.”
Interviewed for this article: Don Brown, (614) 246-2000; Xen Riggs, (614) 292-6455