JEFFERSON CITY • St. Louis' long-awaited Ballpark Village has been lauded, touted and mocked in the years since its plans were first announced.
But after more than a decade of talk, work is expected to begin this fall on the 10-acre project adjacent to Busch Stadium, and officials are aiming for a spring 2014 opening date.
On Tuesday, the Missouri Development Finance Board approved its share of $17 million in state and local incentives for the first phase of the project — one of the final steps before construction could start.
"It's been a challenge," Cardinals president Bill DeWitt III said. "I've never had anything in my career where it's taken that long and had so much invested emotionally and time-wise into something."
Future phases of the project also could receive city and state subsidies — up to $183.5 million total — as long as benchmarks on retail, office, residential and other offerings are met throughout Ballpark Village's completion.
DeWitt called the latest step "a big relief."
"We've been close in the past in a few occasions. Not this close because some things got in the way prior to getting started," he said.
The first phase of Ballpark Village is a dramatically scaled-back plan from the original concept and covers only two of the project's eight square blocks. It will include a Cardinals Hall of Fame, Anheuser-Busch-themed restaurant, shops and an event plaza with a retractable roof to host concerts and other programs. Other tenants are expected to be announced in coming weeks.
The work also will include streets and sewers to prepare the surrounding ground for future phases, which DeWitt said had been among the prior hang-ups. But the Cardinals don't have any office or residential users lined up for those phases, and for now, that land will be used for parking.
"I think there will be a lot of interest, and some of those conversations we've had over the years will pick up once we start turning dirt and get to work," DeWitt said.
When the old Busch Stadium was torn down seven years ago, Cardinals leaders promised that the hole left in its place would be transformed to a mixed-use development to complement the new stadium and revitalize the area. Today, it's a parking lot and a softball field.
The Cardinals had used the village concept as a bargaining chip in obtaining public money to subsidize the new stadium. The organization agreed to pay penalties if the development did not come to fruition but has received extensions during the economic downturn.
In the years since, the project has gone through numerous modifications and delays, with businesses such as Centene Corp. ditching plans to locate at the site.
It was at times supposed to have an aquarium, residential high-rise, office space and underground parking garage, among other amenities.
Under the latest outline, office space could be added in phase three and the first residential units in phase four. Those are targeted for 2016 and 2017, respectively.
DeWitt said the project's many skeptics are "free to be skeptical for another couple months."
"You can't be skeptical if we're out there with shovels. Have at it for another couple months. We're comfortable that we'll be getting started in due course," he said.
State finance board member John Mehner of Cape Girardeau wouldn't discuss his lone vote against the proposal on Tuesday.
"I'm a member of this board and the board has approved it, so the project will move forward," he said after the meeting.
Finance board chairwoman Marie Carmichael of Springfield praised the project and its developers for "right-sizing" their phase one request. The group previously had sought $23.7 million for the first phase.
"It's going to be a great project for the state," Carmichael said.
She also noted that since its earlier inceptions, the developers have accepted more of the risk, including securing the bonds themselves — something DeWitt also described as key to moving the development forward.
"All things considered, this is the way these projects should be handled," Carmichael said.
Tim Townsend of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report from St. Louis.