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Wacky, that's what it was. Well, because Bob Cassilly actually had a check for $250,000 in his hand when he showed up last Friday, uninvited, at the mayor's office, maybe what the sculptor/entrepreneur was doing was eccentric.
Beachfront property on Oakland Avenue. An indoor roller coaster. A giant public building with no air-conditioning, surrounded by a facade resembling a Roman aqueduct. Fountains, 100-foot concrete whales. And around it, behind the facade, some 400,000 square feet of commercial space. Sounds like a plan to Bob Cassilly.
But City Hall didn't take Cassilly's nonrefundable, contingency-free earnest money he wanted to give them to save the Arena. The response from Mayor Clarence Harmon was thanks, but no thanks, with the unspoken question being "Where have you been for the last five years?"
The Arena is set to be blown up in February after sitting empty since 1994. Cassilly, who is a sculptor, real-estate mogul and creator of the City Museum downtown, says he made his initial pitch now because he had just read the details of the proposed deal the city plans to make with Balke Properties to put an office building where the Arena now stands.
"I was shocked," Cassilly says of the terms of the deal. "I'm a professional bottom-fisher. I know a deal when I see one."
So when he and his family took time off at the end of the year in Cabo San Lucas on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico, Cassilly took his clay and modeling tools along to help him visualize what the Arena could look like with a little imagination -- and a few million bucks. He came to the conclusion that it could be saved.
"They're tearing down the Arena for no good reason whatsoever," he says. "They have no tenant; no prospect of a tenant; they don't have a deal with the developer; the developer has committed nothing; the city is forced to spend $700,000 on tenant improvement before the developer signs on the line," says Cassilly. "But it's not too late. It has wonderful drama. It's not the 11th hour, it's the 12th hour."
Cassilly's bravura entrance to Room 200 of City Hall on Friday followed an unscheduled private audience the preceding week with Mayor Harmon after Harmon praised Cassilly at the City Museum in an address to Realtors. Cassilly diverted Harmon into the kitchen, where Cassilly stores his clay model of what he hopes the Arena will look like if he gets his hands on it.
"I ambushed him," says Cassilly. "I said, 'Mayor, I'm so glad to see you. Thank you for saying all that stuff about me. Let me show you my plan.' He very patiently stood there for 15 minutes and humored me. Then he said, 'Fifty thousand a month -- what about that?' And I said, 'If the $50,000 a month was taken care of, would you stop Spirtas?' And he looked me in the eye and said, 'Yes.'"
Well, so much for what's discussed in a kitchen. The $50,000 that Harmon referred to is the monthly payment on the $6 million loan the city took to buy the Arena in 1986. Kiel Center Partners then built Kiel Center downtown with a $35 million city subsidy, with the stipulation that the Arena be eliminated as competition -- that it not be used for any spectator event requiring an admission fee. Spirtas is the company the city has hired to demolish the Arena for $694,000.
In early January, the nonprofit Gateway Foundation told the mayor's office it would cover the $50,000 monthly payment for 12 months in order to buy time until a way to save the Arena could be found. Cassilly says the $250,000 check he took to City Hall is earnest money toward the eventual purchase of the Arena property on Oakland.
Under Cassilly's offer, a $1 million federal "brownfield" grant would pay to have the asbestos, lead paint and other hazardous materials removed from the building. Because his plan could be seen as an improvement of sorts to Forest Park, across Highway 40, he would anticipate the $3 million pledged by the Art Museum to help develop the property. He would pay the city $1.5 million within a year for 20 percent of the property and eventually could pay as much as $9 million over five years, which are terms comparable to the deal the city is negotiating with Balke Properties.
The major difference for the city, financially speaking, is the upfront money: Cassilly is putting up more than Balke's $50,000.
But the difference between Balke's plan and what the impresario of the City Museum wants to do is more than financial. By saving the Arena structure and converting it into a public space that might include an ice-skating rink, an indoor roller coaster, art-exhibition space and who knows what else, Cassilly proposes to make a philosophical statement -- though he is quick to add that there would be significant commercial development around the gussied-up Arena.
"Right now, what have we got here?" Cassilly asks. "A building with a replacement value of $100 million and a huge parking lot. You tear down this building, and you've got an ugly old parking lot and you're on the same playing field as the county, except that you're in the city. You're giving away your one possible advantage. Every shopping center, every development is looking for an icon, a 'big kahuna.' These things exist because of the centerpiece. There's a symbiotic relationship going on between the nonprofit public place and 80 percent of the space that's for-profit, that gives the city earnings tax."