After selling 28 acres of Wellston land to politically connected investors last year, the St. Louis County Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority says it won’t allow them to sell the real estate to a used car auction company.
In a letter released Wednesday, the LCRA board said that its 2017 sale of the Ogden Avenue land was “based on the benefit to the community that the LCRA expected as a result of the development covenant” and that “no reasonable basis exists upon which the board could waive the requirement to meet the development covenant.”
That covenant had promised $50 million in investment and some 300 jobs after LCRA sold the acreage to Wellston Holdings for $275,000. Instead, a few months later, Wellston Holdings began pitching a sale to online vehicle auction company CoPart that would result in $7 million in investment and up to 25 jobs.
The St. Louis Economic Development Partnership touted millions in investment and hundreds of jobs in Wellston. The buyers have a far smaller proposal.
Representatives for the owners said the difference required the LCRA board to sign off on the plan.
In the last four years, two members of Wellston Holdings, John Rallo and Corey Christanell, had given some $40,000 in campaign donations to St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger either personally or through their companies. Stenger has said he has no influence over the LCRA or the agency that staffs it, the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership. Christanell said he was never promised anything in return for his campaign contributions.
“We respect their decision,” Christanell said of the LCRA board on Wednesday. “It was an opportunity for development on the site we wanted to present.”
He said that he realized the CoPart sale was different than what had initially been proposed and that “we will continue to work on development opportunities on the site.”
The city of Wellston had supported the sale to CoPart even while acknowledging it was different than the initial jobs and investment promised.
County sells two sites for far under values; $30,000 in gifts is traced
“We cannot stress enough how important this project is to our community and fully support this development,” Mayor Nathaniel Griffin wrote in a June letter to Partnership CEO Sheila Sweeney.
In August, Wellston passed a resolution urging the county LCRA to hold a meeting and approve the CoPart sale. The LCRA did not hold a meeting bringing up the sale until late November.
The St. Louis County LCRA had owned the 28 acres on Ogden Avenue for years, spending millions of dollars preparing the former industrial site for future development. The LCRA issued a request for proposals for the property in late 2016 and by mid-2017 closed on sales of both the Ogden Avenue land and another, 15-acre site it owned just south of Page Avenue, to Wellston Holdings LLC.
A group that has gotten several favorable deals from the Partnership ran their proposals past Director Sheila Sweeney before submitting them.
Except for a legal notice in the St. Louis American, the request for proposals and sale were not widely publicized or announced.
This month, Sweeney said that the Partnership was “led to believe they had an end-user” other than CoPart. Hundreds of pages of documents and emails obtained by the Post-Dispatch do not mention another tenant. However, CoPart was mentioned to a top Partnership official as early as October 2017, and Griffin, the Wellston mayor, sent a letter that month to Rallo endorsing the project.
Griffin could not be reached for comment.