Burwell: Positive signs suggest St. Louis can keep the Rams

2011-09-07T00:25:00Z 2011-09-09T06:53:52Z Burwell: Positive signs suggest St. Louis can keep the RamsBY BRYAN BURWELL, Post-Dispatch Sports Columnist stltoday.com

What with all the depressing business of disintegrating pennant chases and collapsing college football conferences that have preoccupied us lately, it's been a little hard to focus in on the more upbeat aspects of sports business in St. Louis, like the start of a new NFL season that for a change is charged with a lot more hope than despair.

It's been a while since there was this positive a buzz about the Rams to start the regular season. As an unrepentant football wise guy and the Notorious Man of the People, I try to be the voice of professional restraint. I have witnessed enough bad football around here to come armed with a heavy dose of cynicism. But for weeks I have been watching the Rams and I see no reason to be cynical anymore.

The front end of their schedule isn't as overwhelming as everyone has been predicting. The Rams are going to win the NFC West. ... They're going to win 10 games. ... Sam Bradford is going to take a giant leap toward becoming a franchise quarterback and the Rams' defense will be the unsung heroes of this season. ... And, oh yeah, I think the Rams are going to stay in St. Louis for a long time.

Oooooh, did I slip that one right past you?

We'll have plenty of time to talk about why the Rams should be favored to win their less-than-impressive division. But for now, let's dwell on the positive signs that make me feel a lot less nervous about the prospect of Rams owner Stan Kroenke taking his franchise to Los Angeles when the stadium lease here expires in a few years. I have been the leading cynic on the franchise relocation-Edward Jones Dome-lease situation since Kroenke assumed majority ownership several months ago. I have been worried that he is too shrewd as a businessman to cut a break for the folks who are handling the negotiations to keep the Rams in St. Louis.

The stadium lease is a lopsided piece of negotiating that could detonate in St. Louis' face at any time. But lately I have been hearing things that make me feel like the chances of the Rams taking up permanent residence here in St. Louis are far more promising than I would have ever expected.

If you connect the dots, the signs point to the city and state working out a deal that will keep Kroenke satisfied even if there is no way we can ever give him a stadium that belongs in the upper tier of NFL stadiums. This week, two seemingly unrelated events happened that could be positive signs.

On Monday, it was announced in the state capital that one of the bills to be discussed in the Missouri legislature is a plan that would allow state legislators to pass a law that would provide incentives to lure amateur sports events such as the NCAA Final Four, Olympic trials and youth soccer tournaments to the state.

This is one of the first long-awaited outward signs that state lawmakers finally get it. They have been falling behind a lot of other cities and states in the business of luring major sporting events to the state. This is something that I have been aching to see happen in St. Louis forever, a move to follow the same sort of civic plan that Indianapolis has used so successfully to energize its local economy and downtown environment.

Downtown Indy has become vital by using sports as an industry. Wouldn't it be great if St. Louis could become a destination place for major sporting events like the Final Four on a consistent basis? Coming up with incentives to lure sporting events is a great idea. The Edward Jones Dome and downtown St. Louis currently are not considered by the NCAA to be Final Four worthy. For many reasons, we're considered a regional finals site at best.

In several discussions with very informed sources within the NCAA, one of the biggest complaints they had about St. Louis as a potential Final Four site was the city's unwillingness to match other cities' enticing financial packages. They also mentioned the amenities at the Dome and the lack of prime entertainment districts in proximity to the Dome as big problems that put St. Louis behind cities like Dallas, San Antonio, Indy and Houston. But with a governor who understands the potential for sports as an industry for our city and state, things could begin to change and make St. Louis a more attractive place. And anything that makes the Dome more attractive for the NCAA will benefit the Rams.

As they approach their season opener Sunday — and with all the talk coming out of Los Angeles about the city getting final approval on major football stadium projects to lure an NFL team back to LA — there is now reason to believe that the local and state government will act wisely in negotiations to keep Kroenke from pulling up stakes.

Several informed sources have said that at no point in any discussions with local officials concerning the dome lease has Kroenke ever brought up relocating the franchise back to LA.

While there is no chance any politician in his right or wrong mind on the state or local level will attempt to approve a new stadium for the Rams, there is some very smart talk about providing Kroenke with something that could be just as good to a billionaire real estate developer: land.

Give a real estate developer land and let him determine what he wants to do with it. While the conventional wisdom has always been that the best piece of property to offer Kroenke would be the vacant Chrysler factory off Interstate 44 in Fenton, a much smarter play being discussed involves real estate development right downtown adjacent to the Dome.

Remember the excitement a few years ago about a proposed Bottle District redevelopment just a block north of the Edward Jones Dome? Well, it still hasn't taken off, so there are conversations floating around about the potential for Kroenke to get a hold of that Bottle District development. The land is directly across the street from the Dome, and imagine what Kroenke could do if he could get that valuable piece of property.

If you give a shrewd developer like Kroenke a valuable plot of prime downtown real estate, I guarantee he won't use it for a cruddy softball field that no one ever plays on.

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Bryan Burwell

Bryan Burwell covers a wide spectrum of sports as a columnist for the Post-Dispatch.

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