CLEVELAND — The lease at FirstEnergy Stadium is set to expire in 2028, bringing new conversations about renovations and upgrades to the facility.
Originally built in 1999, FirstEnergy was built to replace Municipal Stadium, along the lakeshore, to be the home of the Cleveland Browns after being brought back to Ohio.
However, the rush of construction led to structural issues over time. The pace of the build and quality issues during the construction process of the stadium is one way the details slipped through the cracks, said Sean Walsh, who took part in the original construction process.
“They cut a lot of corners, too fast,” he said. “A year to a year-and-a-half later, it would have been outstanding.”
In addition to a sped-up timeline, working conditions during the winter months provided a challenge as well.
Walsh said complications included “pouring concrete when it’s zero out, trying to put irrigation and utilities in the ground when it’s zero out. It was put together fast-track and it’s falling apart.”
Walsh’s concern about things falling apart were confirmed in a 2018 Capital Repair Audit of FirstEnergy Stadium, which points out a water system improperly installed during construction and seating in the lower bowl rated fair to poor. These are two of several causes for concern regarding the structural integrity of the venue.
With the contract ending in the near future, new stadium deals happen approximately 3-4 years prior to a lease expiring. However, these talks come with a price tag, which could begin with the letter “B”.
“The money is just off the charts now. We are in a different age of renovating and building stadiums. Not like the good ole days when it was only $100 to $200 million,” said Andrew Brandt, a former executive with the Green Bay Packers.
Brandt helped oversee a $295 million renovation of Lambeau Field in the early 2000s, which was paid largely in part by a sales tax increase.
“You try not to say it, but you implicitly warn us that we could leave,” he said. “Even the Green Bay Packers could leave if we don’t get public support for public renovation.”
After Jimmy and Dee Haslam took ownership of the Browns in 2012, they made it clear they are not leaving Cleveland. They invested in a $120 million renovation project of FirstEnergy in 2014.
Nearly 8 years after the initial efforts, the Haslams backed a plan that would connect downtown to a renovated stadium. Dee spoke on the team’s options for the facility in March.
"Our part now is how we bring the stadium up to a better standard, so I think we've started interviewing and thinking about architects and consultants,” she said. “We're going to talk to a lot of people who are outside-of-the-box thinkers.”
Regardless of how much money team ownership might have, owners still outsource funds as alternate “sources of funding for stadium renovations and construction,” says Brandt.
In theory, using public dollars for major projects will provide a way to contribute back to the community in the forms of jobs and spending, almost offsetting costs, according to Case Western Reserve University professor Jonathan Ernest.
“Generally, what we find is at best it’s kind of a break-even, and at worst it ends up costing a little bit more than what it really generates when you take all the costs into account,” he said.
Ernest said the decisions that determine the future of FirstEnergy will most likely be held behind closed doors and with a few major stakeholders.
“It’s hard to provide these sorts of goods and get a really good estimate of people’s willingness to pay for them,” he said. “So it tends to be a smaller group that you can find a consensus and make a decision.”
The average price tag on new NFL stadiums is $1.5 billion, according to Brandt.
“That's why even with billionaire owners, they’re trying to find alternate sources of funding for stadium renovations and construction,” he said.
The Haslams have recently joined the facilities arms race in professional sports with Lower.com Stadium, home of the Columbus Crew. The facility cost $314 million, after acquiring the team in 2018.
The family took over the team after the announcement of a new stadium in 2018, which was completed in the summer of 2021.
Senior Vice President of Communications with the Haslam Sports Group released the following statement:
“As we have consistently communicated, along with the City of Cleveland, the Greater Cleveland Partnership and other prominent local organizations, we have been immersed in discussing ways to best approach the lakefront’s future and the stadium naturally is a critical piece to the long-term execution of such a project. Contrary to recent speculation, a recent feasibility study we launched does not contemplate a new stadium or showcase new stadium sites. A significant stadium renovation at our current site is the premise of the study as well as a focus on how to provide accessibility to the lakefront, drive density and create 365-destination major development opportunities that would include new public parks, retail, office, experiential and residential spaces. The vision, as many in our community have already seen, is centered on an extensive land bridge. As we are just beginning the study, we certainly do not have enough information to determine the cost of renovating the stadium or what the aesthetics of such a renovation would entail. We believe our study will help answer those questions and should be completed in 2023. The future of the stadium is one of several important pieces to the long-term execution of the lakefront project, and our organization looks forward to continuing to work with our community partners and leaders to identify next steps and our role in helping advance this initiative.”
News 5 reached out to the City of Cleveland for an interview regarding future stadium development but have not been granted one at this time.
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