NFL Draft to Cincinnati? Officials have ‘preliminary discussions’ with the league

It could be held in one of two locations, neither of which exists yet.
Plans to build new convention center in downtown move forward
Published: Mar. 10, 2023 at 9:43 PM EST
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CINCINNATI (WXIX) - A new sports and entertainment arena. A capped Fort Washington Way. A second bridge beside the Brent Spence. A convention center hotel to go along with a refurbished convention center. The NFL Draft in Cincinnati.

Those are among the ideas, some more wishful than others, put forward Friday at the annual meeting of the Cincinnati Visitor’s Bureau.

Visit Cincy Board Chairman Jeff Berding spoke before the crowd at Duke Energy Convention Center hyping up a future vision of the city he described as being at a crossroads.

“If we rest on our laurels, we fall behind,” he said. “We need to be ambitious and unite behind a common vision. In short, we need to be all in.”

Visit Cincy President and CEO Julie Calvert dropped the biggest bombshell of the day: Visit Cincy and the Bengals have jointly notified the NFL of Cincinnati’s interest in hosting the NFL Draft in 2027, 2028 or 2029.

Berding conjured the idea several times in his speech, and 3CDC’s Steve Leeper mentioned it in passing earlier this week. But Calvert confirmed preliminary discussions with the NFL have already happened.

Three of Cincinnati’s peer cities have secured drafts in recent years—Nashville hosted in 2019; Cleveland hosted in 2021; and Kansas City hosts in 2023.

Where would Cincinnati hold the NFL Draft?

Berding offered two spaces: Future highway caps over Fort Washington Way or a future outdoor plaza/exhibition space on the former site of the Millennium Hotel.

The highway caps, Berding said, would “fix what divides downtown and The Banks,” creating “a seamless, long, open park, like a shorter version of the National Mall, for big events and everyday use.” He offered it could host Oktoberfest and Taste of Cincinnati as well.

But the caps were dealt a serious blow last month when federal transportation officials passed them over for a planning grant. Now it isn’t clear when—or whether—the caps will come.

[Why Cincinnati won’t see highway caps on Fort Washington Way, I-75 any time soon]

Berding nevertheless called them one of the region’s top-five infrastructure priorities. “It’s simply too important to abandon,” he said. “Let’s not give up on the vision. Let’s rededicate ourselves to moving forward.”

The former Millennium site is more likely, thanks to the planned $200 million renovation of the Duke Energy Convention Center alongside the construction of a new $482 million convention center hotel.

[Developer selected for Cincinnati’s $482 million convention center hotel]

But that’s not technically a sure thing, either.

Berding drew often upon the combined convention district effort, treating it as a fait accompli and a proven rubric despite its current status as a proposal upon which no public body has yet voted.

3CDC’s Adam Gelter took the lecture minutes later with a presentation laying bare the project’s uncertain financial path—in particular, a hypothetical one-cent increase to the county-wide lodgings tax that county officials have said will be “difficult” to avoid. Gelter himself called it the financing plan’s “most challenging” aspect.

But Berding has a history of speaking large ideas into existence—or, at the very least, speaking of ideas when they already have significant background momentum.

Time will tell whether the NFL Draft places among them.

Replacing Heritage Bank Arena

Berding also wants Cincinnati to have a new arena—and he doesn’t care that there wouldn’t be an anchor tenant such as an NBA or NHL team.

He called Heritage Bank Arena “a hunk of obsolete on our riverfront,” adding that “it’s time we enter the 21st century and catch up with other Midwestern cities.”

Berding claimed 10 Midwestern cities have built new arenas since 2000, six of which remain profitable without anchor tenants.

“We have the model,” he said, referring again to the convention district effort. “We’ve proven over the last year how we get this done. It starts with city and county leaders supporting a third-party study to explore how and where to bring this to life—not just its design, but where it will be built, how it will be operated, how it will be financed and how to make a new crown jewel for our region.”

Berding said he has had many “initial conversations” about a new arena over the last year where he’s heard “significant support” for a third-party study.

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