ST. LOUIS • The St. Louis Board of Aldermen on Friday gave initial approval to a $175 million plan to expand and upgrade America’s Center downtown, something supporters say is necessary to boost tourism and attract more conventions to the city.
Under the plan, first announced in October, the fund used to service the debt issued in 1991 to finance the Dome at America’s Center — built for the National Football League Rams, which left in 2016 — will be used to service new, 40-year bonds issued for the America’s Center expansion. The Dome debt is set to be paid off in 2021. St. Louis and St. Louis County each contribute about $6 million a year to that fund through hotel taxes, and the state contributes $12 million.
The bill essentially extends the city’s and county’s current $6 million payments for up to 40 years, said sponsoring Alderman Jack Coatar, whose 7th Ward includes downtown. But the plan depends on the St. Louis County Council’s authorizing the same financing.
“This is an example of regional cooperation. This is a facility that supports jobs not only in St. Louis city but in St. Louis County, both restaurant and hotel jobs, and the vendors that work at America’s Center,” Coatar said, adding that America’s Center was responsible for millions in spending in the regional economy.
Both St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger have endorsed the plan, noting it won’t require city or county residents to pay any new taxes. There is no commitment from the state for any additional revenue, however.
“The hope is, if we show (where we are) leading as a region, that we can convince the state to also help with a future phase of expansion and improvements to the convention center,” Coatar said.
The measure passed handily on Friday with a 26-2 vote. Aldermen Sharon Tyus, 1st Ward, and John Collins-Muhammad, 21st Ward, cast the only no votes. Aldermen will need to vote on the plan one more time before the measure can move to Krewson’s desk.
Tyus said the annual $6 million put toward upgrades would be better spent on improving the quality of life for St. Louis residents.
“I have never known us not to find money to pay these bills. What we don’t do is we don’t cut grass, we don’t tear down buildings … we do not find money to do things the general public would like done,” Tyus said. “All this administration seems to care about is downtown. And we are killing our neighborhoods.”
The project would add 92,000 square feet of exhibit space along Cole Street and a 65,000-square-foot ballroom along Ninth Street as well as a new pavilion and green space on what is now a parking lot. Twenty-six loading docks would be added along Cole Street, which would allow the convention center to reorient the current 12 docks at an angle so trucks don’t block street traffic.
The expansion plan’s approval comes just as the Dome is getting a new high-profile tenant thanks to the expansion of the XFL professional football league. One of the league’s expansion teams will be playing at the Dome starting in 2020.
In recent months, some downtown restaurateurs and hoteliers have complained that their businesses have taken a hit from fewer conventions. The St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, which operates America’s Center, said last month that hotel room bookings associated with America’s Center were down 30 percent year-to-date, to 230,554 from 327,578 in 2017.
The CVC has also argued that upgraded facilities will allow St. Louis to compete for conventions with cities such as Nashville, Tenn., and Indianapolis, which have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years to revamp their tourism infrastructure.
Should the plan pass muster with both city and county officials, the goal is for renovations to be completed by late 2021.