CLAYTON — The St. Louis County Council on Tuesday delayed pledging $6 million in hotel tax revenue to a massive youth sports complex in Hazelwood after raising concerns about the project’s viability amid an economic downturn spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The council, during a committee meeting, voted 3-3 to delay a final vote on funding POWERplex, a project to convert the moribund St. Louis Outlet Mall into a $54 million sports complex.
During the committee meeting, Council members Ernie Trakas, R-6th District, Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, and Shalonda Webb, D-4th District objected to the funding after raising concerns that developers hadn’t secured other sources of funding and that the county wouldn’t have enough hotel tax revenue to pay for the commitment.
The St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission in 2018 approved the $6 million request to pay for about 10% of the POWERplex project, but only after all other financing was secured. Hazelwood and the state of Missouri have also committed funding to the project.
But the COVID-19 pandemic in March disrupted plans for several private investors, POWERplex developer Dan Buck said.
Hazelwood City Manager Matt Zimmerman urged council members to approve the $6 million to help the city and developers secure commitments from private funders.
“They expect to see everyone’s money at the table — or no money comes to the table,” Zimmerman said.
Council members Mark Harder, R-7th District, Tim Fitch, R-3rd District and Rita Heard Days, D-1st District, voted to approve the funding.
But Trakas, Clancy and Webb asked to have the county’s budget office determine whether the county would have to dip into general fund revenues if hotel tax revenues proved insufficient. Trakas pointed out the county has already committed to using hotel tax revenues for a proposed expansion of the Dome at America’s Center in downtown St. Louis.
“This is big financial risk in light of the current strains on the economy that we’re experiencing,” Trakas said.
Harder, who sponsored a bill authorizing the funding, said the project would create jobs and boost tourism as the industry looks to youth sports and other new areas to recover from the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic.
Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway, D-2nd District, represents the district where the project is located, but was absent from the committee meeting Tuesday morning. She later accused Days, who is acting as the council’s chair while a leadership fight plays out in court, of scheduling the committee meeting despite knowing Dunaway was unable to attend because of other obligations.
The leadership fight stems from the council’s first meeting of 2021, when Clancy and Trakas were elected chair and vice chair with the votes of lame duck Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, who represented the 4th District.
Days, Harder and Fitch contend Gray’s four-year term should have ended on Jan. 1 and that her votes after that date were illegal. But Gray and her council allies argue she continued to represent District 4 until Webb, her successor, was sworn in. The controversy stems from a charter change, approved in August by voters, that delayed the start date for county officeholders until the second Tuesday of January after the general election.
Gray was later hired by Page to an $89,000 public health job overseeing COVID-19 vaccine community outreach in north St. Louis County.
On Tuesday, the council voted 4-3 to give final approval to a bill by Fitch to cut the county public health department’s budget for 2021 by $122,000, an amount that covers Gray’s salary and benefits.
Clancy, Trakas and Dunaway voted against Fitch’s bill.
Clancy — who along with Trakas and Webb have introduced bills to bar elected officials from taking county jobs shortly after leaving office — said cutting money from the public health budget during COVID-19 was “unconscionable.”