ST. LOUIS • Leaders of the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission are contemplating an overhaul of the downtown convention center so massive it could include tearing down the Edward Jones Dome football stadium.
Officials have long said they desperately need to improve exhibit space, expand the center’s ballroom and add loading docks and other support facilities in order to contend in the ultra-competitive convention business. They’ve also said the Dome, as it is now configured, doesn’t provide high-quality, contiguous square footage.
Early last year, the commission’s governing board created a long-range planning committee to tackle the issue.
In May, after a few meetings, the committee came up with several renovation options. One included demolishing the north half of the Jones Dome and adding exhibit halls, a ballroom and a rooftop deck with views of the Mississippi River. Others called for gutting half of the stadium, buying adjacent lots, expanding to the west, or even building a new parking garage and hotel.
“I’m afraid to comment on the Dome. It’s so emotional,” said commissioner Steve O’Loughlin. “Is there a precedent? Yes. You certainly have to consider it. But there’s other options you have to consider, too.”
The agency, funded by St. Louis County, St. Louis city and state tax dollars, has now commissioned a $113,000 study from the international design firm Gensler; C.H. Johnson Consulting, out of Chicago; and the local architecture firm Arcturis.
Commissioners are scheduled to receive the report on Thursday. Officials say it will compare St. Louis to its competition, highlight needs and set parameters for renovation decisions. Work started before the St. Louis Rams left the Dome for Los Angeles, but has been updated to include the team’s departure.
Convention leaders won’t guess at the eventual price tag, but city officials have said they expect it to crest $500 million.
America’s Center, as the convention facilities are called, was “very competitive” when it was expanded 20 years ago, said O’Loughlin, president and chief operating officer of Lodging Hospitality Management, which owns Hilton St. Louis at the Ballpark and St. Louis Union Station Hotel, among other hotels.
Now, cities like Nashville, Indianapolis and Denver have jumped ahead of St. Louis, O’Loughlin said.
Nashville, he said, had small, outdated facilities. “Somehow, they came together and built this just absolutely amazing convention center,” he said. It opened two years ago, stocked with a “green” roof, tons of natural light, a few dozen loading docks, and “Music City” references throughout, including a ballroom built to look like the inside of a guitar.
Soon after, O’Loughlin said, hotels, condos and redevelopment were rising around the new facility.
“Our competitors are bigger, and they’re newer,” he said. “We really need to catch up to those guys.”
Moreover, most of them are also planning better, he said, estimating needs five years down the road.
In comparison, he said, three big St. Louis conventions — FIRST Robotics, O’Reilly Automotive, and Joyce Meyer Ministries — are leaving in two years. O’Loughlin calculates his hotels will lose a collective $1 million in business. “I talk to my team about it constantly,” he said.
“This is a huge opportunity for St. Louis,” O’Loughlin said. “Tourism business is big. It helps fill hotels. It helps fill restaurants. It brings energy downtown.”
Kitty Ratcliffe, president of the convention commission, recently took the Post-Dispatch on a tour of the facilities. The annex that connects the convention center to the Dome is low and narrow; conventioneers don’t like it, she said. The Dome itself is too high — it feels like a stadium, not convention space. The ballroom, at under 30,000 square feet, needs to double in size, she said. And the handful of loading docks needs to quadruple.
As she walked last Friday, children of all ages filtered through the convention center corridors, each heading toward one of 81 volleyball courts set up for a 700-team tournament that draws 22,000 from across the country for four days.
The hallways between the older convention center and the Dome just aren’t set up right, she said. In spots, thousands have to squeeze between passageways just a few dozen feet wide. Two double doors are the only interior southern connection between the Dome and convention center.
And the center might not have enough space for a growing event like the Capital Sports’ Presidents Day Classic. Ratcliffe had to set up volleyball courts in the ballroom and even in a lobby, among staircases and hanging art work.
“It’s really been a success story for us,” she said. “And we are at capacity.”
The event organizer, Scott McQueen, said he had to rejigger match schedules this year, extending the final games late into Monday. Parents didn’t love it.
Even then, he turned away 20 or 30 teams for lack of space.
McQueen said he’s not sure, if demand continues at this pace, that he can keep the tournament in St. Louis.