St. Louis Visitors and Convention Commission President Kitty Ratcliffe is tired of the question, “What are you doing with that empty Dome downtown?”
“This is an industry where if you don’t work downtown and see the people here, you would think it was empty,” Ratcliffe said. “I get so many questions about ‘the empty Dome,’ but it’s not empty.”
The Rams of the National Football League, the biggest annual draw to the 67,000-seat Dome, are gone. But annually from Feb. 1 through July 31, the facility enjoys a 76 percent occupancy for events, including the days it’s reserved for setting up and taking down equipment, according to Visitors and Convention Commission data.
Public interest in the facility’s future has increased as private investors look to bring Major League Soccer to the city — if they can secure $120 million in state tax credits and city tax dollars for a $200 million stadium west of Union Station.
Some local die-hard soccer fans and St. Louis taxpayers who could vote on $80 million in new taxes for the stadium in April want to know why the Dome isn’t in the discussion.
Ratcliffe said it would cost hundreds of millions more to retrofit it for professional soccer. Artificial turf is essentially a non-starter for the league, and installing grass would require removing the roof and rebuilding the deep concrete surface beneath the playing area to include drainage and irrigation systems.
“Anything is possible, but does it make financial sense to do that?” Ratcliffe said.
About 54,000 fans packed the Dome for an exhibition game between European soccer power houses Real Madrid and Inter Milan in 2013. However, the natural grass playing surface that was brought in for it was dead in a matter of days, Ratcliffe said.
Dome occupancy is just 35 percent for the other six months of the year that were reserved for professional football, but Ratcliffe says that should increase annually now that the 21-year-old stadium is no longer reserved for the Rams.
Although the Dome and America’s Center aren’t as empty as some assume, both facilities are in need of improvements or could otherwise continue to lose business. The price tag for all of the wish-list improvements at the publicly owned facility is politically daunting: $350 million.
“If anyone said they’d be willing to invest, we’d begin designing the construction plans,” Ratcliffe said.
Earlier this year a consultant hired by the commission explored the idea of tearing down the Dome, but Ratcliffe said it was better and cheaper for the public to improve the Dome at America’s Center than to get rid of it and replace it.
The Dome’s current and future viability as an event space depends on its connectivity to America’s Center. Direct access between the buildings is limited to a handful of narrow connections. Commission officials have seen it take up to an hour to funnel thousands of convention attendees between the two facilities.
Ratcliffe said America’s Center was falling behind convention centers in competing cities in terms of new investment, expansion and improvement. If nothing changes, the Dome and America’s Center will continue to lose big conventions to better spaces in other cities.
Denver and Columbus, Ohio, have each recently invested more than $100 million in such projects, and Miami and Nashville, Tenn., have each put more than $600 million into state-of-the-art facilities. San Antonio and the Kentucky cities of Louisville and Lexington have each put more than $250 million into convention-center projects opening later this decade.
It’s not all about expansion and aesthetics, either. Public space on the west side of the building can sometimes gets flooded from rain runoff coming down the grade from parking lots across Ninth Street.
“Doing nothing is not a good option,” Ratcliffe said.
Ratcliffe was mum on the level of interest elected officials have shown in such a project. America’s Center, owned by the city, receives annual payments from a 3.5 percent tax on hotel rooms collected in St. Louis and St. Louis County as well as state sales tax money collected on hotel room bookings.
The Dome is jointly owned by the state, city and county and governed by the Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority, which is made of commissioners appointed by the mayor, county executive and governor. They still have about $100 million in bond payments left on the Dome, which opened in 1995.
“We’re at different points with different people,” Ratcliffe said.
With a new governor to take office in less than two weeks and a new mayor later this year, RSA chairman Jim Shrewsbury said the Dome authority was “in a holding pattern” as they expect members to be replaced with new appointees.
“As a practical matter, nobody knows that, and not a lot of people are standing in line for the job, but at some point I and many other commissioners are going to be replaced,” Shrewsbury said.
As a practice, Shrewsbury said, the members always make their decisions based on feedback from the elected official who appointed them.
In a statement emailed by a spokeswoman Thursday, County Executive Steve Stenger said, “We will analyze and review a detailed thoughtful proposal when one is made, and we will evaluate it against other possible uses for available funds at the appropriate time.”
Further complicating stadium issues in St. Louis is that the owners of the Blues hockey team want a renovation of Scottrade Center expected to cost more than $100 million. That stadium is owned exclusively by the city.
A consultant’s report delivered earlier this year proposed up to $500 million in America’s Center expansion and improvements, which gave convention board members plenty to debate in closed sessions. The report estimated a “minimum” 37 percent increase in business downtown if all of the recommendations were followed, including a 300,000-square-foot expansion of the convention center, which is about 650,000 square feet currently.
The $113,000 study was done by the Chicago firm Johnson Consulting.
The convention center remains a life source for downtown businesses, bringing hundreds of thousands of people to the area annually, but its impact appears to be diminishing . The center was estimated to generate 434,000 hotel bookings in 1999 but averaged 351,000 between 2011 and 2014.
The convention center opened in 1977 and was expanded south to Washington Avenue in 1990.
The facilities generate $258 million of direct spending annually, not including NFL-related events, according to the study. “There’s no multiplier,” Ratcliffe said. “That is direct spending by people who come to our events.”
Two of the center’s biggest convention clients, FIRST Robotics youth competition and O’Reilly Auto Parts, have already announced plans to move to bigger convention centers in other cities. Ratcliffe said both had made the change because their needs had outgrown what the convention center here offers.
Partly or completely tearing down the Dome would open up space, but Ratcliffe said it would add hundreds of millions to the proposal. Besides, if the connections between the Dome and America’s Center are expanded, the Dome “has 20 to 30 years of good useful life,” Ratcliffe said.
“There’s no other venue in this area like it in terms of size,” Ratcliffe said.