February 28, 2006

Your Weekly Reeder: Silence of the lambs

Thanks to David Jones and John Schnatter, bless their civic-minded hearts, it’s clear as the neon sign outside the Hard Rock Café that Louisville’s new downtown arena should be built at the old Louisville Water Company site in mid-town, not the LG&E site on the Ohio River.

It took the consultants hired by Jones, the co-founder of Humana, and Schnatter, the founder of Papa John’s Pizza, only 17 days to cut through all the obfuscations, half-truths and misrepresentations orchestrated by Arena Czar Jim Host and conclude that the cost of building a 22,000-seat arena at the Water Company site would be a staggering $114 million less than building the exact same arena at the LG&E site.

That should be the end of it. Ball game. And yet the forces arrayed in favor of the LG&E site are so powerful and so pervasive that it will require an uncommon amount of courage, character and conviction for the Jefferson County legislative delegation to stand up to them.

Aside from bringing to light the incredible difference in cost, the Jones/Schnatter report blew to smithereens all the knocks against the Water Company site regarding size, land acquisition, historic buildings and so on. It also knocked down the “House of Cards” that Host has so adroitly crafted regarding the LG&E site.

The truth is, Host and the other proponents of the LG&E site have utterly failed to show why the LG&E site is so superior that it merits spending an extra $114 million. Sorry, but that’s way too much to spend just so national TV can have a lovely riverfront shot to open its telecasts.

In addition, the University of Louisville has never been able to make a credible case about why it will play at the LG&E site but not the Water Company site. They look foolish. What difference should it make to U of L as long as its men’s and women’s programs are the primary tenants?

Most troubling, there’s enough evidence that Host has played fast and loose with the facts, not to mention standard government policies, that somebody in Frankfort — are you paying attention, Mr. Stumbo? — should empanel a grand jury to investigate the process from the day the Arena Task Force was formed last May.

When the Task Force voted 16 to 1 in favor of the LG&E site, it was because the members had been fed bogus numbers. Schnatter, who cast the only dissenting vote, called out Host at the time. The response was typically Republican: Attack Schnatter for having ulterior motives.

When a reporter from The Courier-Journal questioned Schnatter about his rumored “hidden agenda” at last week’s press conference, it angered Jones so much that he fired back: “Some say that the former publisher of The Courier-Journal, Ed Manassah, had a hidden agenda, too. What can you tell us about that?”

Manassah, who has been credited with having the idea for the LG&E site, has dropped out of sight since he left The C-J to join the faculty of Bellarmine University. He must be sharing a hiding place with Councilman Kelly Downard, the Republican candidate for mayor.

As a member of the Task Force, Downard joined Jerry Abramson, his incumbent opponent, in voting for the LG&E site. All that did was take a campaign issue away from Downard and render him impotent in the arena debate.

Perhaps Downard and some of the other Arena Task Force members now realize that Host herded them like a flock of sheep. Yet their egos will not let them admit that they were sold a bill of goods — that they were bewitched and bamboozled by Host’s formidable salesmanship — so they maintain the silence of the lambs.

What’s in it for Host? Well, he claims to be interested only in what’s best for the city and the state. Yet anybody who’s familiar with the size of Host’s ego also understands that a lot of self-aggrandizement is involved. Getting to play Machiavelli one more time may be reward enough.

The arduous chore of getting the truth has been made even more difficult by The C-J’s shameful abdication of its role as the public’s watchdog. Instead of demanding more accountability from Host through open-records requests and dogged reporting, The C-J has been the LG&E site’s No. 1 cheerleader.

Some day, if we follow the money long enough and hard enough, we may find out about the underlying motives, the hidden agendas and the sweetheart deals. But thanks to Jones and Schnatter, we at least know that the old Water Company site is obviously the only reasonable place for a downtown arena.