Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse
Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, the home of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The building's nonprofit landlord uses collections from a tax on alcohol and cigarettes to pay for major repairs at the facility. Credit: Jeff Haynes / Signal Cleveland

The nonprofit that oversees Cleveland’s baseball stadium and basketball arena approved more than $24 million in taxpayer-funded repairs at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Wednesday. 

But left unanswered was how exactly the public will foot the bill. 

Typically, the Gateway Economic Development Corp. draws on a Cuyahoga County tax on alcohol and cigarettes –known as a “sin tax”– to pay for repairs. The Cavaliers have largely exhausted their allocation from those proceeds, however – meaning the city and county will have to scrounge for the money elsewhere.

County official Matt Carroll and city Finance Director Ahmed Abonamah, who both serve on Gateway’s board, left no clues Wednesday as to where they’ll find the funds. Cavaliers CEO Nic Barlage told the board that the team is willing to cover some of the costs up front, giving the city and county time to come up with a source for reimbursement. 

“We feel we’ve got a great history and track record of doing that in partnership and collaboration with Gateway and the county,” Barlage said. “We would be prepared to do that to a certain extent. Obviously for us we can’t foot the entire bill all at once.” 

The request comes as the city and county juggle other major projects: building a new jail and courthouse, developing the long-stagnant lakefront and renovating Browns Stadium

The Cavaliers will overhaul the arena’s 29-year-old elevators and escalators at a cost of $7.9 million. The team also received the go-ahead for a $16.5 million replacement of outdated video hardware used to broadcast games.

The team shaved a few million dollars off of an earlier estimated price tag of $28 million. The board approved the work unanimously. 

Daniel Riess, a consultant for Gateway who works for the audio-visual firm WJHW, told the board that the broadcast system runs the risk of “catastrophic failure” without an upgraded system of video cables. If those cables fail, Cavaliers head of venue operations Antony Bonavita told reporters, “you won’t be able to watch our games on TV.” 

The FieldHouse’s elevators and escalators are at the end of their 30-year lifespan, consultant Bill Schirmer told the board. He urged the board to replace them before a breakdown. 

“The current elevator control systems are all obsolete, which isn’t a problem, the elevators still run — until a major component goes where you can’t get a replacement,” Schirmer said. “Now that elevator is down and out of service for probably a year.” 

Although the FieldHouse underwent a $185 million renovation in 2018 and 2019, that work did not include the escalators and elevators, team officials said at an earlier meeting. The city, county and team shared the costs of that renovation.

Under the leases with the Cavaliers and Guardians, Gateway is obligated to pay for capital repairs that cost more than $500,000. Voters in 2014 renewed the sin tax on alcohol and cigarettes to foot the repair bills for the arena, ballpark and football stadium. 

The sin tax was expected to raise about $92 million for each of the three facilities through 2034, Gateway Chair Ken Silliman said at a meeting in May. The county has already spent about $82 million for repairs at the FieldHouse, leaving just $10 million for future work there, he said. 

The county sold bonds in 2015 and 2019 to fund work at the ballpark and arena, using sin tax revenue to pay down the debt. 

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Government Reporter (he/him)
Nick joins us from the world of public radio. He has more than a decade experience covering politics and government in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. In 2021, he produced and hosted "After Jackson: Cleveland's Next Mayor," an Ideastream Public Media podcast on the Cleveland mayoral race. He has also covered breaking news, opioid lawsuits and elections nationally for NPR.