CLAYTON — The St. Louis County executive said on Wednesday the county should investigate a stalled agreement on a recreation facility before releasing money for an expansion of the downtown St. Louis convention center.
The statement from County Executive Sam Page threw support behind Council Chair Rita Heard Days’ plan to probe a 2-year-old agreement with the region’s tourism office over a north St. Louis County recreation facility.
“Both sides of this issue make good points — the Convention Center needs significant investment and North County has been ignored for too long,” Page said in the written statement. “Our focus now must be not on the past, but the future. In that spirit, I think some kind of task force to look at both of these issues is merited and that may be the only way to ultimately resolve this stalemate.”
The $210 million expansion of the America’s Center Convention Complex is being funded by St. Louis County and city bonds. City officials approved their share, after some delay, in August 2020. But Days has for two weeks delayed a final council vote on the county’s part. She claims St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission President Kitty Ratcliffe reneged on the agreement for a recreation center in north St. Louis County.
Negotiated in 2019 by Days’ 1st District predecessor, Hazel Erby, the agreement with the CVC provided the agency would approve the expenditure of 35% of the county’s hotel-motel tax revenue not already encumbered by other projects on the new North County facility. Erby died in July after a long battle with cancer.
Ratcliffe has pointed to the actual language of the bill, which authorized funding for both projects but did not specify further commitment from the CVC. Ratcliffe said the agency exceeded its obligation by funding a study, presented to the council last week, that outlined why an indoor track facility would best benefit North County residents while drawing in tourism from outside the region. A copy provided to the Post-Dispatch on Wednesday estimated the center could create 170 full-time jobs and draw $16.7 million a year for the region.
But Days has insisted that Erby and residents of the district, which would likely house the proposed recreation center, understood the agreement to mean that the CVC would see the project through to completion. The councilwoman has said she is forming a special committee to probe the agreement in public hearings, with support from Ernie Trakas, R-6th District, a frequent critic of the CVC. She again delayed a vote Tuesday to release the funds.
Days declined on Wednesday to further explain her claims that the CVC is obligated to build the center.
Ratcliffe did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the CVC again referred the Post-Dispatch to text of the bill.
Page’s statement hints at a tenuous political relationship with Days, a former council ally who has since joined a bipartisan council majority often critical of the executive.
Page spokesman Doug Moore said on Monday in a statement that releasing funds for the convention center expansion would move the recreation center plan forward by generating the hotel tax funds necessary to pay for it: “The pandemic has left the council in a difficult place. The hotel-motel tax revenues have been devastated and building up convention traffic will be a large part of that recovery. Restoring those funds will provide resources for a north county facility.”
Moore sent the Post-Dispatch an email Wednesday from Paul Kreidler, director of performance management and budget, which said the excess hotel-tax funds in 2019 amounted to $1.3 million.
But the fund hasn’t grown anymore because the pandemic slashed tourism revenues: “Due to the pandemic, we have not had an excess of revenues in the fund since 2019, and likely will not for several more years until the Hotel/Motel tax fully recovers,” Kreidler said.
A year after the 2019 agreement, Days asked Ratcliffe during a council meeting for an update, and Ratcliffe told the council the CVC had hired a consultant to study what types of activities would best serve the area. There was little public discussion on the matter again until July, when the Post-Dispatch reported that the CVC’s study for the North County recreation center had yet to materialize. Ratcliffe told the council that the study was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the agency to furlough staff. And she said the study had to be reworked to factor in other youth sports centers proposed for the county, including POWERplex in Hazelwood and Fieldhouse in Chesterfield.
Ratcliffe presented the study to the council last week. But when Ratcliffe told the council it was the county’s decision how to proceed, it frustrated Days, who then delayed a council vote on the funds.
A short time later, the Post-Dispatch reported that Ratcliffe warned regional officials, including county Chief Administrative Officer Deanna Venker, that the region could lose more than $100 million in as soon as six months if the expansion is delayed. Days said Ratcliffe was trying to “do the media blitz,” but said she would not be pressured.
And on Sunday, Ratcliffe responded to a letter from St. Louis NAACP Adolphus Pruitt to the state NAACP that accused her of making “an about-face” on a project that would benefit a predominantly Black area. Ratcliffe sent a letter to the Missouri NAACP and Days that the allegation was “untrue” because the agreement only created the funding for the project.
Pruitt and Rod Chapel, president of the Missouri NAACP, have not responded to requests for comment.
St. Louis County NAACP President John Bowman, who Ratcliffe included in her letter, said he was unaware of the city’s letter to the state conference. Bowman, who was named president of the St. Louis County chapter in November 2019, told the Post-Dispatch he did not have a position on the convention center dispute but hoped that both projects could move forward.