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'Stifeling' a bad idea — Ballpark Village

'Stifeling' a bad idea — Ballpark Village

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We owe a debt of gratitude to Stifel Financial Corp. for finally driving a stake through the heart of a very bad idea that for years refused to die — Ballpark Village.

Actually, the village never made sense. That was obvious from the beginning, when the city made the owners of the Cardinals sign a guarantee that they would build the village — or else face financial penalties.

If a business idea is good, there is no need to negotiate guarantees and penalties. Business people act on good ideas.

In this instance, we already had a ballpark and very few businesses had grown up around it. So why would anybody think that a village would flourish around the new stadium?

Of course, you could make the argument — and I used to — that the whole idea was a sham from the start. The Cardinals owners wanted to get into the public's pocket as deeply as possible, and they understood that it would be difficult asking the public to give money to wealthy out-of-towners for a new stadium when there already was a perfectly suitable stadium.

So they came up with this phony idea of a project that would "revitalize" downtown. We were going to have an aquarium, a 27-story residential tower and so on and so forth.

That never seemed realistic. The only real danger was the team owners and the city would finally agree on a face-saving minivillage. No residential tower, no aquarium, but an office building or two and a couple of franchise restaurants.

In fact, the minivillage concept was unveiled in January — an office building and a retail complex. Part of the deal, of course, was that the new building and businesses would receive tax breaks.

That would have been terribly unfair to the owners of existing office buildings and restaurants.

Happily, Stifel announced Tuesday that it would be buying the building it now occupies on North Broadway instead of moving to the proposed office building in the minivillage.

This should be the stake in the heart of Ballpark Village.

Consider that Stifel was able to buy the building it now occupies for less than half what its current owners paid 4½ years ago. That speaks to the glut of office space downtown. Why give any kind of tax breaks to build a new building that isn't needed? The Cardinals owners were seeking at least $57 million in incentives.

Stifel also was going to be the lead tenant of the new office building. In fact, Stifel has served as financial adviser for the project.

For that matter, Stifel Chief Executive Ron Kruszewski said Tuesday he still supports the project.

Sure he does. Just like George McGovern supported Tom Eagleton 1,000 percent before he dumped him from the ticket in 1972.

So thank you, Stifel. We owe you our gratitude for killing a bad idea. But do we owe you our money?

Therein lies the problem. Stifel is seeking approximately $17 million in various public financing for the purchase and renovation of its building.

"There's very little investment going on right now without some incentives," Kruszewski said.

That's true, and $17 million is a lot less than Ballpark Village was going to cost us. Plus, Stifel has agreed to make payments to the schools. That's a good thing.

But still, whatever happened to the entrepreneurial spirit? Why should the public pay a successful business to buy a building?

America was built by entrepreneurs. Literally, I mean. All the old buildings were built by businessmen who saw a need. "Hey, this area could use a department store. I think I'll build one." Or, "This area could support an office building. I'll build one."

If they were right in their assessments, the buildings succeeded and the businessmen made money.

Of all the businesses that ought to understand the business of business, it's Stifel. It's a brokerage and investment banking firm. The people who run Stifel profess a belief in capitalism.

Except, of course, when it comes to their own affairs. Risk and reward? Nonsense! No investment without incentives.

Well, fine. I can understand the sentiment. If you can get public money, why not get it? What I can't understand is the way the public always goes along with this stuff.

When liberals like me argue for comprehensive health care, critics call us socialists. But when businesspeople demand public money to underwrite their projects, hardly anybody says anything.

The squawking comes mainly from a few of us socialists who still believe in capitalism.

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