New Lease on Life as Bengals, County Face Future


Katie Blackburn, the Bengals executive vice president born in Cleveland and raised in Cincinnati who came of age with her team on the downtown riverfront, has been all over the place in the 10 days or so leading up to Sunday's Battle of Ohio at Paul Brown Stadium on Thanksgiving Weekend against her grandfather's first team that goes by the name of the Browns.

If she wasn't at South Avondale School presenting a $250,000 check from the Bengals and the NFL Foundation Grassroots Program for a synthetic turf field, she and husband Troy Blackburn, a Bengals vice president, were at The Holy Grail sports bar in The Banks hosting Happy Hour trivia for Bengals employees. Or, she was at the Freestore Foodbank in downtown Cincinnati volunteering with other team employees in the effort to prepare free Thanksgiving dinners.


"This is always an important time in our community and we're thankful to be a part of it all," Katie Blackburn says this week during a break. "Cincinnati is a special place, especially during the holidays."

In the middle of the hectic pace, the Blackburns and the team's front office headed by Katie's father and Bengals president Mike Brown made sure the Bengals' roots went even deeper into the banks of the Ohio with major revisions to the PBS lease. A month after the NFL trading deadline passed, the Bengals and Hamilton County struck the proverbial "good deal for both clubs:"

-In an effort to make sure their fans have enough parking spaces to tailgate, when the club agreed to give up the parking in Lot 27 just east of the stadium so the county could build a music venue designed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the Bengals accepted the county's offer to buy the 15-acre Hilltop site just west of the stadium that is to be re-developed for 1,700-1,900 parking spots.

-In exchange for the Bengals capping money for improvements to the stadium, the county agreed to spend $6.3 million on capital repairs, replacements and improvements in 2019, $5.5 million in 2020 and 2021 and $5 million from 2022-26. Meanwhile, a national design firm is ticketed to conduct a foundation-to-canopy assessment of the stadium and develop a series of concepts that not only enhances the game day experience but keeps pace with the rest of the buildings in the NFL during the coming decades.

-The Bengals agreed to end the county's $29.4 million annual payments to the club while assuming the right to build an indoor facility on the Hilltop site at its own expense. That caps a ground-breaking flurry of agreements that has been heralded as a new day of cooperation by everyone from Hamilton County commissioners to business owners looking to continue the decade-long development that has mushroomed The Banks from bit player to Pro Bowler in the Greater Cincinnati economy.

"It's hard to believe it's been more than 20 years since the project began and it was sold on a campaign that not only had two new sports stadiums but that those stadiums would serve to anchor a kind of a front door for the region," Katie Blackburn says. "We feel like this agreement with the county is a major step in extending that original vision into the future for the team, the community, the fans and the continued development of the riverfront."

The people that put their money and sanity on the line at The Banks a decade ago have also welcomed Cincinnati's version of "The New Deal." Jim Moehring, part owner of The Holy Grail who was told by a leading Cincinnati business exec that he'd lose everything if he put his sports bar on the river grilled sandwiched by the stadiums, has never been one to be blitzed by the future. His wildly successful business opened a month before the Green-Dalton Era in the spring of 2011 and proved to be a harbinger of hotels, apartments, restaurants, businesses and parks and he can see it taking another step with the potential of the music venue on Bengals Sundays.

"Activating that building on game day would be fantastic for everybody. It's the model I've seen around going to places like Dallas," Moehring says. "We've seen what's been happening. It's just not fans tailgating at their cars. It's bands and open stages for a total game day experience and everything that plays into it. We're talking about a 4,000-seat Rock Room that is cutting edge. Far and beyond anything going on in a place like Pittsburgh."

Some of the elements that could be part of Bengals game day programming at the music venue along with bands are media chalk talks, autograph sessions and luncheons.

"When you're selling an NFL team to your fan base you want to offer different options and this is just another arrow in the quiver," Katie Blackburn says.

Images from Wednesday's Bengals practice as they prepare for the Cleveland Browns in week 12.

As for the building that may or may not be built, an indoor facility for the Bengals at Hilltop, the club is assessing its options. With it would come the loss of some parking, for instance.

"It's a complicated issue and some things are out of our control," Blackburn says. "But we like the idea of keeping everything downtown. We think that's an economic boost for the city and county and that's one of the reasons we wanted to bring training camp to the stadium, as well as bring it closer to the fans."

Moehring, who saw the future once, thinks he sees it again. He's got a good track record.

"It's a sign of long-term cooperation between the team and the county and that makes everyone a winner," he says. "Obviously it shows the Brown family is committed to the community and vice versa and it makes the future pretty exciting around here. It's incredible what's happened and with what's happened in the last week I think it can only get bigger and better."

Meanwhile, the kid born in Cleveland and raised in Cincinnati also hopes to see some more wins developed on the river. As soon as Sunday against that team called the Browns.