Ohio's Least Famous Sports Hero
Imagine Cleveland without the Indians. Now relax. That likely will never happen, thanks in large part to Tom Chema
Published in 2004 Ohio Super Lawyers magazine
on December 27, 2003
Updated on July 30, 2015
That’s what many people think Cleveland might have become had it lost the Indians, which it may well have done had Thomas V. Chema not played his pivotal role in the development of Jacobs Field. Without the new stadium, the Indians likely would have slipped out of town, leaving Cleveland without a baseball team.
Chema doesn’t take credit for helping to prevent that scenario, although he acknowledges that Cleveland’s revitalization in the ’90s would have been inconceivable without the Indians and their success in that decade.
“The project died a thousand deaths,” says Dave Abbott, who was involved as the county administrator. “Tom has a way of methodically hanging in there. He has good strategic vision and nuts-and-bolts operational understanding. Some people have one or the other; he has both.”
For Chema, and the Indians, it all began with a call from the governor.
He was barely back to his practice at the now defunct Arter & Hadden, after having served five years as chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, when Governor Richard Celeste called and asked him to attend a dinner meeting.
“He was a lame duck, couldn’t run for re-election, and he wanted to know what kinds of things he ought to concentrate on, particularly as it related to northeastern Ohio,” Chema says.
“And at that meeting, someone — I claim it was somebody else but they claim it was me — suggested that he ought to spend his effort trying to save the Cleveland Indians. At that point, the Jacobs brothers who owned the team were really being lobbied heavily to move the team to Florida.”The Indians were doing miserably. “There were a few years in the mid-’80s that the [triple-A] Buffalo Bisons team outdrew them. So they were really hurting. This was an opportunity for them to move.”
A couple of weeks later, Celeste called another meeting to discuss what had to be done to keep the team in Cleveland.“It was obvious that we needed to build a new facility. And he asked me if I would try to help him figure out how we’d pay for it,” Chema says. “I came up with this sort of public-private partnership using the sin tax as a base idea. And having got the governor, the mayor and the county commissioners and a bunch of other politicians out on a limb, they put me out there with them and put me in charge of the project.”
Basically, says Abbott, “the governor asked him to play a shuttle diplomacy role, going to the various interested parties to see if a package could be created to get something done. Tom played a role that was really pivotal in developing a consensus for the package that went on the ballot in 1990.”
Attorney Steve Ellis, who has known Chema for 31 years, says he was the one person in a million who could have ushered Gateway through. “Not only were the Indians on the brink of leaving town, the town was on the brink of leaving town.Tom walked into deep cynicism and voter mistrust, and through sheer force of will and personality, he changed the political landscape.”
It didn’t look promising, though. Not one poll indicated that voters would approve the sin tax, Chema says. But it did pass — barely. “Then we all sat around and looked at each other the day after and said, ‘OK, what do we do now?’”
What they did was create the not-forprofit Gateway Corporation. Up to that point, Chema had been working pro bono. Once the tax passed, he left Arter & Hadden again to work for Gateway. So began “a very steep learning curve.”
“We made it up as we went along,” Chema says.
It was the largest public project going on in the country during that time, and the financing was horrendously complicated because no one had done a sin tax on that scale before. Barely a day went by that Chema didn’t ask himself what in the world he was doing there.
“Negotiating the leases with Dick Jacobs and Gordon Gund [owners of the Indians and Cavaliers, respectively] — that was a challenge.We had several lawsuits. We had one non-union contractor who challenged our project labor agreement. We had the issue with the American Indians over Wahoo. You name it and there was something.”
Besides, public sentiment was against it. “We won by 1.2 percentage points. Twenty of the 21 wards in the city of Cleveland voted no. And that resulted in councilmen from most of those wards thinking that it was their job to make this as painful a process as possible.”
On top of it all, every meeting was open to the public, “so whenever we made a mistake, everyone in the world knew about it in a hurry,” Chema says.
He remembers a negotiating session with the Indians that went on till 3 in the morning. He was awakened after three hours of sleep by his son, who informed him that a Channel 5 newsman was asleep at the end of their driveway. “His car was blocking our driveway because he was intent on making sure he got the first interview. There were just tons of things like that.”
His more pleasant Gateway experiences had to do with the players he came to know. “When we were building Jacobs Field, we took Eddie Murray and other free-agent types for tours of the construction site on several occasions. That was a plus dealing with them. I remember Murray was the first big-time free agent that the Indians tried to acquire, and he was extremely interested in the progress of the ballpark.”
Then-Indians pitcher Charlie Nagy “was one of those really good guys in sports,” says Chema. “He helped us out with things like groundbreakings. Before it was real, people didn’t think we were really going to build that ballpark, even though the tax passed. Until steel started coming up out of the ground in August of ’92, there were an awful lot of skeptics.And Charlie was one of those guys who was out there willing to help and be a spokesperson for the project.”
Sports figures weren’t the only ones who helped the cause.“Tom Hanks was in town doing a one-person show and we had him come over to the construction site.We gave him a tour and had him hand out hot dogs to the construction workers.”
Chema says public opinion turned around immediately after the ballpark opened in April of ’94. Fans attending the first exhibition game at Jacobs Field exclaimed, “This is Cleveland? I can’t believe this is in Cleveland.”
“It turned almost on a dime with that opening weekend.”
After Gateway, more projects started coming Chema’s way. He began establishing himself as Ohio’s stadium king. He worked on Akron’s Canal Park and the Cincinnati Bengals stadium, among others.
Working on the football stadium gave him the opportunity to meet Bengals owner Mike Brown. “He is one of the brightest, most honest people I’ve ever met. It’s to a fault with him. If there’s two ways to say something, a soft way and a direct way, Mike always chooses direct, and it gets him in trouble all the time. But I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Mike, unlike most of the people in Cincinnati who just want him to win. I think Cincinnati people would just as soon ship him to Cleveland.”
There’s been no dearth of business for Gateway Consultants. Recent projects have included a feasibility study into whether Mansfield, Ohio, should try to build a ballpark to host a single-A team. The company is also helping a triple-A team in Charlotte, N.C., build a ballpark; consulting with the New Orleans Zephyrs on how to best develop land adjacent to their existing ballpark; and working on a Marina District development in Toledo.
In Ashtabula, Ohio, a lodge and conference center is slated to open in late May. Chema, whose company is consulting, offers some history on the project: “County commissioners for years have wanted a hospitality facility out at Geneva State Park area, and the state never had the money or, if they had the money, it wasn’t high enough on the priority list. So we suggested to the commissioners that they be the developer.” In an unusual public-public partnership, the commissioners are building the facility on a parcel of the park grounds leased from the state. “A lot of people all over the country are looking at it to see if this works, which it will, and they may want to do similar things.”
On a sweltering Tuesday in July, Chema is in Ashtabula for a meeting to iron out some construction details. Seemingly unfazed by the heat in his gray suit, white shirt and maroon print tie, Chema strides around the site, pointing out the spectacular view of Lake Erie and the beginnings of what will be a two-level, 113-room facility. It will look like a New England lodge, he says, and it’s obvious that in his eyes, it’s not only finished but glorious. His vision also encompasses the implications of this construction. “We think it’s going to be a real boon to economic development in this county.”
That ability to see beyond current conditions impresses those who know him. “He is perhaps one of the most creative people I’ve ever known,” says Patrick Zohn, a principal with Gateway Consultants who has worked with Chema for five years. “He is clearly one of the innovative leaders in northeast Ohio.You can sit with him and talk for 10 minutes. He’ll come up with three or four terrific ideas and you sit back and say, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’
“He has a common-sense genius to solve problems,” but he’s also selfeffacing, says Zohn. “He doesn’t mind allowing others to take credit. If the full scale of his accomplishments were known, he would be in some high elective office.”
Chema says he’s pleased to have been involved in projects like the original Gateway. “You have a real quality of life issue. I think that our building Jacobs Field had something to do with the Indians’ success during the decade of the ’90s. And so the people in northeastern Ohio got a tremendous amount of pleasure out of that eight-year run of really solid championship-style teams for the Indians.”
A youthful 57, Chema has a 28-year-old son and 31-year-old daughter, both living in the Washington, D.C., area. He and his wife have two grandchildren.
His life and work have been satisfying, he says. “I’ve been really fortunate. I have had a number of really disparate aspects of a career and they’ve all been enjoyable, because I’ve had a chance to really contribute. I like being able to contribute to making the community a better place.”
Betting His Career On Public Service
Tom Chema graduated magna cum laude with a degree in history from the University of Notre Dame in 1968 and received his juris doctor from Harvard in 1971. He joined the now defunct Arter & Hadden firm in 1972, staying until he became executive director of the Ohio Lottery Commission in 1983 under Governor Richard Celeste.
In the case of the lottery, the stage appeared set for failure. Nevertheless, “that was the most fun job I ever had,” Chema says, launching into the first of many stories: “I had never played the lottery, I knew nothing about it, I had voted against it.” He was the ninth director in the nine-year history of the Ohio Lottery. “One of my predecessors was in jail. None of them had particularly enhanced their reputations.”
His first morning on the job, a major in the state highway patrol handed him some paperwork to sign “so that he could go across the street to the justice center and try to get indictments against three of our employees for theft,” Chema recalls, shaking his head. “Those were my opening moments at the Ohio Lottery. The place was in such shambles that there was nothing I could do that would screw it up. It had to be better no matter what. And we were able to turn it around.”
He eliminated the theft by instituting an electronic system, which removed the temptation of employees handling cash. In his year and a half at the lottery helm, gross sales went from $400 million to $860 million.
“The day I walked into the lottery, if you had asked the staff who they worked for, 95-plus percent of them would not have admitted they worked for the lottery.”When he left, people were proud of where they were working, he says. “What it really took was raising expectation levels, causing people to feel that they could do a lot better in what they were doing.That was very satisfying.”
He’s President Chema, Now
Six months ago, Chema’s zigzag career took yet another turn: In June, he was named interim president of the small liberal-arts Hiram College, after having served on the institution’s board for 11 years.
In one-on-one conversation in his spacious Hiram office, Chema comes across as casual and genial. Call him Tom, he says to a new acquaintance. He laughs easily, is an articulate storyteller and isn’t above making a joke at his own expense, as when describing his appointment to the college’s highest post:“We had a big board meeting, I had to go to the bathroom and when I came back I was president.”
Actually, says Alan Brant, chair of the trusteeship and governance committee, when the board approached him about the presidency, “Tom said, ‘That’s interesting. I like a challenge.’” Chema had everything the board was looking for: experience, academic background, knowledge of the institution and great people skills. In addition, he’d already developed positive relations with the faculty, says Vice Chair Ken Moore. “He’s good at engineering consensus.”
That skill is mentioned repeatedly when colleagues and friends talk about Chema. Bond lawyer Gene Killeen, who has been working on projects with him for 10 years, says,“Tom has a remarkable ability to bring people together who may not otherwise want to work together and get them all working toward a common goal.
“I’ve seen him in action where he’s the only guy in the heat of negotiations that everybody trusts implicitly,” Killeen says. In any given project, “there are a lot of details that have to come together and a lot of people to try to get to see eye to eye.Tom makes that happen.”
For the time being, Chema is more focused on academic issues than project negotiations, although he remains president of Gateway Consultants Group Inc. (He stole the name from the Gateway ballpark/arena project, he admits with a grin.) Besides, he’s enjoying his tenure at the college, which will continue until a new leader can take over this summer.
The college, located in the scenic town of Hiram, Ohio, is about 35 miles southeast of Chema’s law office in Cleveland. “It’s a school that is turning out liberally educated young men and women who are distinguishing themselves as citizens. And it feels good to be a part of that.”