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Nixon pulls St. Louis County out of new football stadium financing

CLAYTON • St. Louis County taxpayers will not be asked to support a new football stadium on the downtown riverfront — at least for now. That strips the plan of $6 million per year and raises questions about the viability of a financing scheme for the $985 million arena.

A senior aide to Gov. Jay Nixon called the office of County Executive Steve Stenger a little more than a week ago. The aide told a Stenger policy adviser that “St. Louis County’s participation would not be necessary in the stadium deal,” Stenger told the Post-Dispatch on Tuesday.

Stenger has long said he would not support county tax dollars being used for a new NFL stadium without a public vote. He said Nixon’s office did not talk about how stadium planners would make up the difference.

Brian May, the Nixon aide who called county policy adviser Jeff Wagener, referred questions to Nixon’s office. Nixon spokesman Scott Holste released a statement late Tuesday, saying Nixon’s two-person stadium task force is making progress, but otherwise providing little clarity on the issue. “The role for St. Louis County,” the statement says, “relates to their continued support of the existing dome and convention center ...”

The news caught some off guard.

Mike O’Mara, a St. Louis County Council member, labor leader and Stenger political ally, said he agrees with the county executive’s position on putting the stadium issue to a vote. But he said the council had not been consulted. “We’ve had no conversations regarding it. Nothing has come across our desk — yet,” he said.

Jeff Aboussie, an officer at the St. Louis Building and Trades Council, said union officials hadn’t been informed either. “It could derail the deal, and that would present a huge problem for us.”

Aboussie called the proposal “without a doubt the largest construction project” in the region.

Jeff Rainford, current consultant and former chief of staff to Mayor Francis Slay, said he was uncertain of the impact of Stenger’s statement on the city’s portion of the funding. Nixon’s team has already managed many variables in this process, and Rainford said he was confident they would continue to.

But Jim Shrewsbury, the Nixon-appointed chairman of the Edward Jones Dome Authority, said the move by Nixon’s office is part of the plan to persuade NFL owners to keep the Rams in town.

An owners committee has been meeting for weeks about moving a team to Los Angeles, after a 20-year absence from the market. Stan Kroenke, owner of the Rams, is a front-runner among three teams bidding to leave. He announced in January that he is building a $1.86 billion stadium on the old Hollywood Park racetrack in Inglewood, Calif.

Owners of the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders, who have long tried to get new stadiums in their hometowns, have also announced plans to build a two-team arena outside of Los Angeles. NFL owners could pick the winning stadium plan as soon as May.

But, during the NFL’s annual owners meeting last week in Phoenix, several key owners insisted they would protect local markets from losing teams — if those markets can present their own stadium proposals with concrete financing plans.

And that’s the problem so far in St. Louis. Opponents of taxpayer-funded stadiums have argued vehemently that a decade-old law requires separate public votes in St. Louis and St. Louis County before any tax dollars can be used to build new stadiums.

Right now, the state, city and county each help pay off nearly $300 million in bond debt used to build the Jones Dome 20 years ago. The state pays $12 million per year, the city and county $6 million each.

In January, Nixon’s team presented plans for a $985 million open-air stadium on the Mississippi riverfront, north of downtown, saying it was counting on about $450 million from the NFL and team ownership, plus tax credits, seat licenses, and as much as $350 million up front from an extension of the existing bonds.

Shrewsbury said the uncertainty of a public election is, right now, worse than losing $6 million a year from the county. “One of the issues that needs to be resolved is the financing,” he said. “The quicker that’s done, the better chance we have of prevailing in this matter. And if there’s some doubt as to whether or not the county can participate, it’s better to move without them.

“At the end of the day, if we get a favorable decision, we can always revisit the issue,” he continued. “If we don’t get a favorable decision, it’s all moot.”

Besides, Shrewsbury said, he thinks the NFL and Kroenke — or whoever might own a team in St. Louis — could be persuaded to put more money into a stadium plan. “I think they’re wanting to see our commitment before they make a commitment,” he said.

In the meantime, he expected to see a rising cost in the portion covered by the city and state.

“They’re going to have to do something,” he said, “to make up that loss.”

Stenger said the county would continue paying its $6 million a year through 2021, when Jones Dome bonds are scheduled to be retired.

He said he’d consider supporting future upkeep on the Jones Dome, but no one has yet asked him to extend the payments past 2021. “That’s not anything we’ve really looked at at this point,” he said. He added that he’s also not against supporting a new stadium down the road. “I want to see the Rams stay here. I want to have an NFL team. But we would have to evaluate any proposal on its merits, No. 1, and, No. 2, we would want to see that go to a public vote.”

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Steve Giegerich is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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