By JOE MILICIA, Associated Press Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) - Passing a sales tax to build a new convention center downtown would be a difficult sell in this tough economy.
Persuading voters to do so without a clear, unified message from public officials could be impossible.
"To date, there has not been a compelling argument as to why people should tax themselves for this project," Cuyahoga County Commissioner Tim McCormack said.
City and county officials are considering an increase in the countywide tax on hotel stays and asking voters to approve a 0.25 percent increase in the county sales tax, which is already highest in the state at 8 percent.
Those increases would generate about $63 million a year, according to city and county leaders. A convention center would require about $33 million a year, leaving $30 million to be divided among inner-ring suburbs, Cleveland neighborhoods and arts and cultural programs.
Officials have until Aug. 21 to put the sales tax issue on the ballot.
While city and county officials have spent the last few weeks disagreeing about how to share and administer the $30 million, Dennis Eckart, president of the Greater Cleveland Growth Association, said they are rapidly approaching an agreement.
"We have phone meetings, face meetings, e-mail meetings, fax meetings," Eckart said.
McCormack questions whether a convention center is even the right project for the city, which he said needs to focus on job growth and making the city more attractive for young people.
Eckart said he would like to have public officials unanimously behind the project, but knows that may not happen.
"We are prepared to go ahead without everyone committed to it," he said.
County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones said the message to voters must be that passage of the tax would bring jobs and development to Cleveland and its suburbs.
"We have no other option. This is too important for the region not to have an agreement," he said. "I have no question we'll be able to mount a campaign."
Voters like Steve Grasso of North Olmsted are the ones who will need to be convinced.
"I've never been to the other convention center in my whole life," he said of the old, underground facility, which officials say is outdated.
Grasso, 37, thinks it's foolish to build a new one because many other cities already have built them and few corporations are spending to send people to out-of-state conventions.
He said he can't see voters approving a sales tax increase so soon after the state raised the sales tax 1 percent earlier this month.
"If there ever was a plan to be embraced by the voters, it's this plan," said Will Voegele, regional director of Forest City Commercial Group, which owns the proposed 13-acre site for a convention center behind Tower City Center overlooking the Cuyahoga River. "It's much more than a convention center."
Forest City's plan includes building a residential area on a peninsula across the river from the convention center and expansion of hotels, shopping and restaurants in the area.
"You're investing in the quality of life and the economic strength of this region," Voegele said.
Garfield Heights Mayor Thomas Longo said a tax has little chance of passing.
"There's not enough information. Nothing's out there," he said. "People do not connect what a convention center means to a local economy."
Voters like Michael Cornelius, 45, of Cleveland, haven't forgotten about a sin tax that built stadiums for the Indians, Cavaliers and Browns.
"They're still taking tax money for that stadium," said Cornelius, as he pulled out a pack of Newports from his pocket. "They want some more tax money?"
But voter Brett Grenesko, 33, of North Olmsted, said he wouldn't even notice a quarter-percent sales tax increase.
"You have to keep growing. It's a good way to improve the city," he said. "If they do it right, it will be a good thing."