Nothing amuses me more than when a public servant tells me that I ought to mind my own business and stay out of his. The tricky thing about being a public servant — with strong emphasis on that word public — is that your business is my business.
So imagine what a chuckle I got Tuesday when I found out that Mayor Francis Slay's chief of staff, Jeff Rainford, went on local sports talk radio suggesting that all this public (oops, there goes that word again) haggling over the Edward Jones Dome renovation business was just too darned complicated for a sports columnist to understand.
"I respect Bryan as a sports writer," Rainford told host Frank Cusumano on KFNS (590 AM), "(but) probably he'd be best served sticking to sports. I don't think he understands the convention business, what it takes in the convention business and what it takes to get ahead in the business."
Rainford went on to lecture about how anyone who knows anything about this complicated business — and I am assuming he means the folks his boss appointed to the Convention and Visitors Commission who are handling the delicate negotiations with the Rams — would understand that the only reason the city is struggling to attract major events to the Dome has nothing to do with the fact that the facility is woefully outdated.
"We have adequate facilities to be competitive," Rainford explained, "but we don't have ... in essence, what's happening in both amateur sports and in conventions is an arms race. What's really happening is not just facilities are better. ... What's happening is in other places they're in essence giving it away. So if you want to hold a Final Four, you almost have to give the facility away. If you want to hold a lucrative, citywide convention, you almost have to give the facility away, and the CVC doesn't have the operating budget to do it. If you really want to make St. Louis better for amateur sports, we need to pass the legislation that the St. Louis Sports Commission is pushing in Jefferson City in which about $5 on every ticket would be set aside for just that purpose."
The legislation Rainford is talking about is a proposed law that Ohio and Texas have already passed that provides tax rebates to cities that are seeking to lure amateur sports events to their local facilities. The NCAA championships like the men's Final Four are now going to cities like Houston and Dallas because they can afford to bring the basketball championships in without charging the NCAA rent. It's the same sort of legislation I have been championing as a way to spur the development of downtown and the entire region through amateur and pro sports. It's also the same legislation that a representative of the CVC failed to support during a hearing in Jefferson City in 2010, but now the CVC belatedly advocates.
So just to be clear, is that the legislation you're talking about, Jeff?
Oh, yes, it's just so darned complicated.
Well, no it isn't. The only thing that's complicated about this is making people understand why it's so essential to get it done. Taxpayers who are staunch detractors of publicly funded stadium initiatives can grind on about their opposition ad nauseam. Politicians can shamelessly pander to those same voices, playing the tough guy in the public negotiations, even if behind the scenes they know they will ultimately cave in when the time is strategically right.
But since the last time I checked, I was a taxpayer, too, I guess I can keep on advocating for the pro-sports crowd, which is not to be confused with "carrying Stan Kroenke's water," as the anti-stadium crowd likes to characterize anyone who is in favor of this stadium project. As this process plays out, we'll also find out that $700 million figure is rather arbitrary. After arbitration, the costs could end up in the $500 million to $600 million range, and then we'll also discover after some healthy haggling that the bill could be split in half and some creative methods can reduce the burden on taxpayers (see: Minnesota's stadium financing plan).
The only water I'm carrying is the bucket for people with a vision who understand what the completion of this project will mean. It will mean St. Louis could become a regular host of NCAA tournaments, SEC football and basketball championships, Super Bowls and college bowl games. The value of those events for the region could cut a big chunk off the bill, too.
But since this is so complicated and way above my head, I decided that someone who is quite familiar with this sort of business — former NCAA senior vice president Greg Shaheen — might be able to coach me up on this dizzying stuff.
"It takes a village to get this done," said Shaheen, who for the past 12 years oversaw the men's basketball championships and bidding processes for the Final Four. "It takes a community being able to get together to form a common strategy."
One of the cities that seems to have formed one of the better strategies — and one I have urged St. Louis to observe — is Indianapolis.
"I think what you can glean from Indianapolis is that 35 years ago or more (it) decided to go for a long ball with amateur sports," said Shaheen. "That was to invest extraordinary amount of resources in people, money, land, facilities towards a downtown that could stage large events and attracting major events. It was a comprehensive strategy. Communities that tend to excel are ones that understand that it takes resources to make resources. What happened (in Indianapolis) was (the creation of) jobs and hotels being built. Then the big events came to town and it led to corporate executives who are quite possibly going to never get another look otherwise at your community spending the week in your town (as spectators). These events are the ultimate showcase for cities."
Hmmmm, this is something even a sportswriter can understand. Build it and they will come. "It was that higher vision," said Shaheen of Indianapolis' ambition and transformation. "It was thinking of that short-, medium- and long-term return that drives these things. And it requires some broad vision to make it so."
Wow, that doesn't sound so complicated, now does it?