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Browns begin study of downtown development that could include new stadium

BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns have begun long-term discussions about a development project that could include a substantially renovated stadium or a new facility at a different site in downtown Cleveland.

"We’re excited for the opportunity to be part of the conversation about downtown re-development," owner Dee Haslam said. "We should be part of the conversation in a bigger way, and I think we will be."

Speaking in her office at the team’s facility, Haslam said that she and the team are in the earliest stages of learning everything they can about a project that could take a decade or more before it comes to fruition.

The focus would have the Browns taking a larger role in the revival and development of Cleveland. The stadium draws interest, for good reason, but Haslam said the project is wider ranging, in part because she feels it’s time the team was part of Cleveland’s growth. Whether that means developing the area near the existing stadium while renovating it or a new facility in a different spot will be part of the discussion and study.

"The main thing is to start the conversation, at some point," said Haslam, who agreed to the interview after ESPN learned of the talks. "I don’t know that we’re ready to start the conversation, but we are ready to get all the information we can about what’s possible.

"So I think it’s really important to find out what’s possible. There could be a lot of great ideas that we might not be able to do because it’s not feasible for one reason or another. I don’t want to get the cart before the horse until we’re knowledgeable enough to know, because we’re not informed enough to know right now.

"But we do know that we have a desire to make a bigger impact on the future of Cleveland."

Haslam said the Browns have spoken informally to city officials and civic leaders about the idea, and received encouraging feedback. She added that because the Browns are not developers, the initial effort is about learning what can be done. The team will consider alternate sites as a matter of course, but feels it’s important to have the development downtown.

"I think it’s great that they are thinking, one, so far out, and two, really thinking broadly about the development of Cleveland," said David Gilbert, president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission. "I think that this approach of thinking very far out and thinking how sports can play a real role in the development of a community, in the physical development, I think it’s great and speaks a lot to their commitment to Cleveland."

Haslam emphasized that the team needs to be proactive in learning about what could be done at any site that could include commercial, residential and retail space. As part of the process, the Browns are conducting an economic impact study with Cleveland State University.

Gilbert pointed to the impact that the Gateway project had in downtown. It took an underused area and developed it around Progressive Field and Quicken Loans Arena.

"Really stepping back and thinking about how and what the development of our lakefront or another site means and how a stadium ties into that, is absolutely the right kind of thinking long-term for the community," Gilbert said.

The team will complete its lease at FirstEnergy Stadium, which runs through 2029. The team would work closely with the city, county and state as talks and a potential project move forward, Haslam said.

Some of the newer stadiums in the league have cost $1 billion or more, though most are following the trend of multi-use facilities with other development included. The Browns realize that questions will be asked about funding, but because they don’t know what the development effort will or could be, they feel it’s premature and almost irrelevant to get into that discussion at this point. In 2015, the Browns completed a two-year, $125 million renovation of FirstEnergy Stadium. The team paid $95 million of that cost.

"I think it's great that they are thinking, one, so far out, and two, really thinking broadly about the development of Cleveland." David Gilbert, President and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission.

That renovation was nothing compared with what this long-term project could provide. If the team renovates the existing stadium, it would likely have a completely new feel and look -- with additional development in the area around it if possible.

"I have no idea at this point what’s even feasible," Haslam said. "Don’t you think it’s a good idea for us to learn and figure that out?"

The timing makes sense. Teams have taken 10 or more years to get a project like this off the ground and completed.

At this point, almost anything is under consideration, including putting a roof or dome on the existing or new facility. But to say there are serious talks about an indoor facility would be jumping ahead.

"Those are all the questions that you ask over the next five years," Haslam said. "We are not developers. We don’t know about it. We are in the learning stages of what you would do, so we don’t know. I don’t think anybody has any idea of how that would work. I think it’s way premature to have some of these conversations."

Other ideas would be guesswork, but might include finding a way to better join downtown with the stadium by somehow covering a highway and train tracks just south of the stadium, adding a Browns Hall of Fame or working with others in the community who might be interested in the project. Some of the land north of the stadium is used by the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority, another complicating factor.

Haslam said any decision on the stadium’s long-term future site should not be made by the Browns.

"I really do think that would be a decision by the people of Cleveland and the planners," she said. "I think what we need to do is be part of the conversation."

The project could bring the Browns’ facility into the 21st century, and could potentially be a boon to downtown and the city. FirstEnergy Stadium was completed for the 1999 season. By 2029 it could be one of the league’s oldest facilities.

Including Atlanta, which opened last season, 10 new stadiums have been built since 1999. Six have roofs, either permanent or retractable. Many were built as part of larger developments and to use the stadium for more than home games.

Minnesota’s new stadium has a translucent roof that allows light through to "bring the outside in." Minnesota hosted the Super Bowl in January and will host the Final Four in 2019. Atlanta’s $1.5 billion stadium will host the 2019 Super Bowl.

Haslam emphasized that the team’s immediate emphasis is on (finally) getting a winning team on the field. This project, she said, is part of the future. She recently gave up her role as CEO of RIVR Media, and she and her fellow owner and husband, Jimmy, live in Cleveland year-round.

"We want to do the right thing for the people of Cleveland," she said. "That’s all.

"Like we’ve said before, this team belongs to Cleveland. It will always belong to Cleveland."