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Convention center standoff continues: CVC warns of first cancellation; Days eyes potential Rams settlement money

Convention center standoff continues: CVC warns of first cancellation; Days eyes potential Rams settlement money

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The Dome and convention center in St. Louis

The Dome and convention center in St. Louis as seen on Tuesday, June 5, 2018. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

CLAYTON — If St. Louis County, the city of St. Louis and the region’s sports authority settle a lawsuit with Los Angeles Rams’ owner Stan Kroenke, some of the money they may receive should be used to pay for a recreation center in north St. Louis County, Council Chair Rita Days says.

Her proposal, outlined in a letter on Friday, seized on recent reports of a potential multimillion-dollar settlement of the NFL lawsuit, identifying those funds as a way to pay for the recreation center that officials of the region’s top tourism agency agreed to support more than two years ago.

Days, whose majority-Black district would be the likely site for the rec center, has for months delayed a final vote on issuing county bonds to finance expansion of America’s Center in downtown St. Louis until she could secure a commitment on the proposed facility.

Days’ letter came after Kitty Ratcliffe, president of the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, demanded last week that the council take “immediate action” to end the delay, which she says has pushed back construction by three months and might force the cancellation of a major convention in September 2023 that could bring in an estimated $15.4 million for the region.

The National Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest and oldest predominantly Black denomination in the U.S., has reserved all space in America’s Center and rooms at more than a dozen hotels, Ratcliffe said in an “open letter” to top city and county officials.

Responding to Ratcliffe, Councilman Ernie Trakas, a longtime critic of the CVC, blasted the agency for trying to pressure the county to release its share of funds, and called on the council to vote Tuesday to ask the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership to evaluate the expansion project and “alternative proposals.”

Those alternatives would include an 11th-hour pitch by Bob Clark of Clayco that would entirely remake the complex.

The letters turned up the heat in a standoff now in its fourth month that is the latest roadblock for a $210 million expansion of America’s Center, under agreements the city and county made in 2019 to each issue $105 million in special obligation bonds for the project. The city released its share of funds last year.

The convention center expansion and proposed North County recreation center were tied together in a deal negotiated in April 2019 by Ratcliffe and Days’ predecessor, then-Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-1st District. That agreement, which ensured the necessary votes for the convention center measure to pass, directed that 35% of the county’s “excess” hotel-motel tax revenue — that is, revenue not already encumbered by other projects — would be used to pay for the proposed rec center.

Little was done to advance the project in the last two-and-a-half years until Ratcliffe last month provided the council with a CVC-funded study that suggested an indoor track facility would best serve the region. Ratcliffe said the study was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered the tourism industry and forced the agency to furlough staff. But she insisted the agency exceeded its obligations by funding the study, which interviewed locals and surveyed sports complexes across the country to determine that an indoor track-facility capable of hosting local and NCAA tournament events would best serve the region.

The study did not estimate a total cost for the project but pointed to similar facilities elsewhere in the country as examples, from the $2.5 million JDL Fast Track in North Carolina to a $68 million sports center in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

But last month, the council was told by county budget officials that there won’t be any excess hotel-motel tax revenue available for at least three years because the COVID-19 pandemic had shuttered the tourism industry, leaving some council members questioning how the project could possibly move forward.

After news reports last week said Kroenke was considering settling the lawsuit for somewhere between $500 million and $750 million, Days demanded a council hearing with representatives of County Executive Sam Page’s administration to discuss whether any money could go toward the recreation center.

“It is imperative that the Council, as the plaintiff client, be briefed as soon as possible about any settlement talks involving such substantial sums of what would be public dollars, and it is imperative that the Council and the County Executive see to it that the (Regional Sports Authority)/CVC commitment to paying for the North County Rec Center is fulfilled,” Days said in her letter.

The Dome the Rams once played in is part of the America’s Center Convention Complex. The 4½-year-old suit by the region claims the National Football League broke relocation rules by allowing the Rams to leave St. Louis after the 2015 season, and misled the public about its intention of staying here.

The plaintiffs — the city, county and RSA — claimed the Rams’ departure cost the region millions in amusement, ticket and earnings tax revenue.

Doug Moore, a spokesman for the county executive, said a court protective order prevents the county from discussing the lawsuit.

In her letter, Ratcliffe said the county’s delayed bond issue pushed back the city’s ability to contract construction work for the expansion by three months. The project was scheduled to be detailed in bids in October, and construction work was to be completed by September 2023.

The National Baptist Convention was supposed to meet in St. Louis that month, as the first convention in what would be the newly renovated center. The group had chosen St. Louis “many years ago” through a competitive bid process and reserved all the space in the Convention Center as well as rooms “with more than a dozen hotels,” Ratcliffe said.

Ratcliffe said the CVC reached out to the national organization and local chapter to inform them “that the program manager does not believe that the construction can be finished in their space by the time of their convention dates,” Ratcliffe said.

“This is the first group to have a potential cancellation, and I’m hoping the only one. But we have a very full calendar in the fall of 2023, and as this delay progresses there will be other groups that need all space and will be similarly affected... Immediate action is necessary to avoid both great financial loss and reputational damage to our region.”

The letter was sent to Page, Days, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones, St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green and St. Louis Board of Alderman President Lewis Reed. It follows a warning last month Ratcliffe delay over the county’s share of convention center funds could cost the region an estimated total of $100 million.

In his letter this week, Trakas, R-6th District, said the delays Ratcliffe warned of “are, in large part, entirely on the CVC.”

“The CVC knew two-and-a-half years ago it had promised to help create a community center in North County,” he said.

“Rather than working with us and others to address legitimate concerns, the CVC and the City of St. Louis have chosen to put political pressure on elected officials.”

Trakas said he wants the Partnership to conduct a “cost benefit analysis” of the CVC’s convention center expansion design and report back to the council in 60 days.

“Taking a short period of time to make sure we are not making an enormous mistake is something all of our constituents expect and demand,” he said.

Asked about Trakas’ request, Moore said Page “does not see a role for the Partnership.”

Moore also reiterated past statements that it’s up to the council to figure out a way forward because “the council has full appropriation authority.”

“They have a difficult decision to make,” Moore said. “Because of the pandemic’s impact on the hospitality industry, the hotel-motel tax fund does not have the financial resources for another project.”

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Reporter covering breaking news and crime by night. Born in Algeria but grew up in St. Louis. Previously reported for The Associated Press in Jackson, Mississippi and at the Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas.

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