As football fans and budget-watchers speculate on Cleveland’s new lease negotiations with the Browns, one number has been missing from the conversation.
How much have taxpayers already shelled out for the city-owned stadium on the Lake Erie shore?
Mayor Justin Bibb’s administration estimates the stadium has cost the public nearly $243 million since 2010. But City Hall doesn’t keep a running total dating to the late 1990s, when it signed the lease to bring the NFL back to Cleveland.
Signal Cleveland has pored over 24 years of audited financial reports and 19 years of budget books in search of a number.
Our best guess: The city has been on the hook for roughly $350 million since 1998. And counting.
Taxpayers of many stripes have shouldered most of that cost.
The county’s drinkers and cigarette smokers paid down construction debt – and now stadium repair costs – through a voter-approved sin tax on their vices of choice. Sportsfans, theatergoers and concert audiences foot the debt in the form of an increased city tax on admission tickets.
Drivers help pay off stadium debt when they use lots subject to the city’s parking tax. Car rentals are also taxed. The city used non-tax revenue to pay off a portion of its debts, too.
Even Cleveland’s general fund – which relies largely on income taxes to pay for basic services – will be chipping in $2 million a year through 2028 to help pay for an extensive renovation in 2014.
The Browns have also spent money on the stadium. The team contributes toward the city’s costs in the form of $250,000 annual rent payments.
Apart from the public’s share of expenses, late owner Al Lerner pitched in for construction, and the team bore the lion’s share of the more than $130 million stadium overhaul in 2014.
Since Jimmy and Dee Haslam bought the Browns in 2012, the team has spent $154 million on stadium improvements, according to team Chief Communications Officer Peter John-Baptiste. Operating expenses like maintenance, security and administration cost the team nearly $10 million a year, he wrote to Signal Cleveland in an email.
Over the years, the team and city officials have argued that taxpayer spending at the stadium redounds to the city’s benefit.
“Cleveland is a major-league city because it’s one of only 15 in the U.S. to have an NFL, NBA and MLB team,” John-Baptiste wrote.
As the stadium’s owner, Cleveland also bears major-league responsibilities. While the Browns field the football team, pay staff and make money through ticket sales, concessions and advertising, Cleveland acts as the landlord at the more than 67,000-seat facility.
The city is still paying off the debt it incurred for construction in the late 1990s. It pays the stadium’s property taxes and insurance. It uses Cuyahoga County sin tax revenues for major repairs.
Now, Bibb’s team and the Browns are contemplating the future of the stadium and the lakefront around it. Unknown is how much more money taxpayers will end up giving for the deal that emerges.
How we tallied taxpayers’ 30-year commitment
A quarter century ago, then-Mayor Michael R. White and City Council argued fiercely over the cost of birthing a new Browns franchise after Art Modell moved the old team to Baltimore.
Cleveland took on millions of dollars in debt to demolish the old lakefront stadium and millions more to build new. When the dust of construction had settled, the stadium’s price tag stood at $289 million, according to a 2002 city financial report.
Owner Al Lerner, the NFL and the state of Ohio contributed $112 million, the Plain Dealer reported at the time. The Browns agreed to handle some cost overruns.
That left Cleveland to pick up the rest of the tab using proceeds from bond sales. In the early days of the new Browns, the city’s debt for demolition and construction rose to more than $165 million.
Over the next 25 years, Cleveland left a record of its spending in annual financial reports that are difficult for the layperson to follow.
Those reports don’t consolidate stadium expenses into a single number. Instead, they list spending across four different funds:
- The Cleveland Stadium Construction Fund, which handled building costs and now pays for capital projects at the facility
- The Cleveland Stadium Debt Service Fund, which pays down construction debt
- The Stadium Bond Fund, which paid off a separate debt issuance for construction
- The Cleveland Stadium Operations Fund, which covers the city’s other landlord responsibilities like property taxes and insurance
The reports place the expenses in broad categories – principal, interest, properties and capital outlay, for instance – but not in finer detail. Still, the documents give a general sense of how much the public has invested in the stadium.
Cleveland has made almost $278 million in principal and interest payments on stadium construction and demolition debt through 2021, the reports show. (About $24 million of that debt was paid off with city revenues other than taxes, the financial reports say.)
Debts payments have been credited to all four stadium funds over the years.
Another $52 million came out of the Cleveland Stadium Construction Fund between 2003 and 2021. Most of that is categorized as capital outlay – an accounting term for money spent to repair and maintain an asset, like the stadium.
The city spent about $21 million on other expenses, largely out of the Stadium Operations Fund. That roughly lines up with what Cleveland spent on property taxes, insurance, professional services and other costs listed in the city’s yearly budget books.
The sum of those three numbers: about $350 million.
City Hall’s own estimate places stadium repair and improvement costs at about $82 million, higher than Signal Cleveland’s figure. It was unclear why the numbers are different; it is possible the city’s number included money committed but not yet paid out.
The late-’90s lease and bond sales committed Cleveland to three decades of spending at the stadium. There is still more to pay before the lease expires in 2028.
Property taxes and insurance premiums come due annually. Construction debt is not yet paid off. At the end of 2021, the city owed $61 million in principal on that debt.
That means the city’s costs will cross the $400 million mark over the next few years.
Money in, money out
What the city receives in return is harder to quantify.
By City Hall’s count, Browns stadium generated more than $67 million in revenue for the city between 2010 and August 2022:
- $44.8 million in admission taxes collected on ticket proceeds from games and concerts
- $19.6 million in income taxes from all who work at the stadium, including visiting teams
- $3.3 million from the Browns’ lease payments
That doesn’t include other non-city revenues like sales taxes, which fund county government and public transit. The total also doesn’t include the economic impact of the stadium and the team, although economists question whether stadiums truly repay what they cost.
John-Baptiste, the team spokesman, told Signal Cleveland that the Browns have commissioned – but not yet published – their own impact study. He shared a few numbers from that forthcoming report, writing that the stadium drew 500,000 visitors and $225 million in spending in 2021, supporting almost 3,400 jobs.
Those numbers will likely receive more attention and scrutiny when the details of a new lease agreement become public.
Neither side has said much publicly about negotiations. Jimmy Haslam has said plans would likely involve a “substantial remodel” of the current stadium. And Bibb has signaled that he’d like a new deal with the Browns to look beyond the stadium’s walls to the city’s underdeveloped lakefront.
After his State of the City speech last month, Bibb said he hoped to protect Cleveland’s general fund from ongoing stadium maintenance costs.
“I’m no longer going to risk general revenue fund dollars for maintenance of a privately owned football franchise,” the mayor said to applause. “So we got to be creative. We have to think differently about financing, but I think it’s important that we think differently about how this fits into a larger piece of making us have one of the best lakefronts in the world.”
That wouldn’t preclude the city from spending other taxpayer resources on a deal or on the surrounding lakefront.
Cleveland has already begun lining up money for development. Bibb has proposed $3 million in federal stimulus funds for a long-discussed land bridge connecting downtown to the water.
When completed, the bridge will give Browns fans a new way to reach the stadium on Game Day.