When the St. Louis Blues first announced a multimillion-dollar ice rink project in May 2016 for a corner of Creve Coeur Lake Memorial Park, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger applied the metaphorical brakes.
“I think they got the cart before the horse,” Stenger said.
A few months later, the Blues backed the cart up to Stenger’s campaign stall and made a $5,000 delivery. It was Sept. 12 and the owners of the city’s hockey franchise had picked their horse.
The very next day, the St. Louis Port Authority created the “Sports Recreation Initiative” and hired attorney Bob Blitz — another Stenger donor — to a $50,000 no-bid contract to help create the framework for a public-private partnership to build the new practice home of the Blues, which would also provide ice time for local youth hockey teams.
Today, the site tapped for the ice complex is scraped bare by bulldozers. On both sides of Marine Avenue in the northwestern corner of the federally protected park, trees, grass, wildlife and wildflowers are gone, replaced by acres of dirt being flattened and raised by heavy construction equipment every day.
That work, key county officials claim, has nothing to do with the ice project, which has yet to get the approval it needs from the National Park Service to go forward.
Sheila Sweeney, CEO of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, says the grading work, even if it might ultimately benefit the ice center, is connected to an unrelated stormwater project.
“The grading work is not related to anything other than stormwater management,” she told the Post-Dispatch this summer. That’s also what she told the Department of Natural Resources in a written request for approval to begin the work.
A growing number of critics to the project find that argument simply unbelievable.
“Somehow we’re supposed to believe that what they are doing is separate from the ice arena,” says Mitch Leachman, executive director of the Audubon Society. He noted that when the construction company put up silt fences in July for the project they followed the identical outline of the ice center project. “It’s not unrelated. They’re lying to us.”
Public records support Leachman’s accusation.
The proposed site of the Blues practice arena project is 13750 Marine Avenue, which besides being in the county park is also in the city limits of Maryland Heights. That means the company doing the grading work needed a permit from the city.
That permit was issued July 6. It lists the description of the work to be done:
“Construction of an Ice Center.”
The permit says nothing about stormwater. It was issued to the same company, ARCO Construction, that has been chosen as one of two companies to build the ice center.
“All requests for approvals have been made with honesty and transparency,” Sweeney said by email in a response to questions. “All necessary permits have been obtained lawfully.”
So where are the minutes of the meeting, I asked, that outline the supposed stormwater project?
They don’t exist.
That’s one reason why Leachman is a member of a growing coalition trying to stop construction of the arena in the federally protected park, which contains Missouri’s largest natural lake. The coalition has a petition on change.org which has more than 16,000 signatures opposed to putting the ice center in the flood plain. The coalition includes the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center, the Audubon Society, the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, the St. Louis Open Space Council and many other groups that use the park and want to protect it.
They’re not against the ice center, Leachman says, but its location, in a park that is protected by federal law, and which regularly floods. On a recent day, we stood in the Tremayne Shelter at the edge of the lake. Three times in the past 15 months that area has been underwater, as has Marine Avenue, Leachman says. Raising the site north and west of the area will only make flooding worse. So will building acres of parking lots and a massive building where once a peaceful meadow stood.
That, too, was the conclusion of the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic at the Washington University School of Law. “The construction would not only detract from the park, but will also exacerbate flooding and introduce unnecessary public and environmental threats to the park,” the center wrote in a detailed 12-page letter to the economic partnership opposing the project.
“This is just a big mistake,” adds Steve Mahfood.
The Wildwood resident is a former director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources under three governors. “I understand very well the necessity for the new rink,” Mahfood says. “But you can go down the list of reasons why that facility should not be in the flood plain. It should not be in the park.”
He finds the contention by the economic partnership that scraping the land flat and raising it will somehow not exacerbate flooding to be “ludicrous.”
And he suspects that his former colleagues at the DNR, if they are aware of what he and others believe is the deception behind the current work being performed, are “concerned.”
“To start on the project before they have full approval, it’s really unbelievable,” Mahfood says. “It’s just so obvious that they have been manipulated.”