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Almost four months ago, a St. Louis economic development agency quietly acquired a downtown parking garage just across Ninth Street from the back corner of America’s Center.

The purchase is the latest indication that plans are in motion to do something with the region’s publicly owned convention center following warnings from consultants that it needs expensive upgrades to keep up with other cities.

“We are working with the (Convention and Visitors Commission) to look at ways to expand and improve the facility,” St. Louis Development Corp. Executive Director Otis Williams said when asked this month why one of his agencies purchased the garage. “It will take a joint effort by local, regional and state leaders in order to make it happen.”

Consultants have warned that the region risks losing out on hotel stays and other tax revenue generators if America’s Center isn’t expanded or improved to keep up with other cities. St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission President Kitty Ratcliffe has said the wish list for all potential improvements to the convention center and the attached Dome at America’s Center approaches $350 million.

Refinancing and extending the existing debt on the Dome, where the St. Louis Rams used to play, could raise about that much, Ratcliffe said early last year.

But talk about those improvements has been mostly behind the scenes since then. A spokesman for the CVC referred questions to the public agency’s attorney, who declined to comment.

While it’s not clear what plans officials have for the convention center and Dome, attorneys for the CVC have held closed-door meetings with the St. Louis Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority in the last 12 months.

It was the LCRA that in September purchased the parking garage at 911 North Ninth Street and the adjacent parking lot at 901 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, just to the north of the Holiday Inn downtown. The property was formerly owned by Convention Plaza Garage LLC, which listed a New York address.

When the LCRA purchased the garage, it also signed an agreement with the Regional Convention and Visitors Commission. The city agency agreed to lease the property to the CVC for 20 years.

“The lease grants to tenant a continuing right to be reimbursed for tenant’s investment in the acquisition of the property in the amount of $1,057,174.67,” an agreement between the LCRA and CVC says, according to city real estate records.

The reimbursement would come from the “proceeds of sale or transfer of property, if and when (LCRA) sells or otherwise transfers the property,” the agreement says, or it could come “from bond proceeds.”

The LCRA entered into a loan agreement with Stifel Bank & Trust the day it purchased the garage. It references a $7 million loan to the city agency secured by the new city-owned garage and parking lot.

How much the city paid for the garage and whether it was more than the referenced CVC investment in the property acquisition, isn’t clear yet.

The amount of CVC reimbursement can be increased under certain circumstances outlined in the lease, according to real estate records.

What those conditions are, though, are unclear. The city’s LCRA declined to release any agreements between the CVC and the economic development agency after the Post-Dispatch submitted an open records request.

In response to a records request submitted Jan. 2, an attorney for the agency wrote “the real estate transaction that those items pertain to has not yet concluded and we anticipate that … public knowledge of the transaction might adversely affect the legal consideration for the purchase of the real estate that is associated with these agreements.”

Missouri law allows public agencies to close records that deal with pending real estate transactions. But records approving real estate transactions have to be made public once the transaction concludes.

Williams, the LCRA chief, didn’t want to say much about what other transactions are part of the economic development agency’s agreements with the CVC. But he did say his agency is looking at the whole area and the purchase was not just to get more parking for the convention center. There are future plans, he said, “but I just don’t want to tip my hand.”

The garage at the northwest corner of America’s Center the city now owns isn’t the one that most often comes up when talk arises about convention center expansion plans. It’s the still privately owned garage at Seventh Street that America’s Center was forced to build around that often is mentioned as obstructing expansion. City and CVC officials have indicated in the past that demolishing it and replacing it with ballroom space and other facilities is a priority. But they have never been able to reach a deal with the owners, AFI Investment Company, which is out of New York.

Almost four years ago, the St. Louis Development Corp. announced plans to find a developer to build a garage on surface parking lots it owns between Sixth and Seventh streets, leading to some speculation it could replace the Seventh Street garage and kick off a convention center expansion.

But soon the failed attempt to keep the Rams consumed the city’s attention, and the plans for another garage never happened.

Now, with the purchase of the Ninth Street garage, there is again action to do something with the convention center. When officials will reveal more details, though, is unclear.

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