CLAYTON — The St. Louis County Council on Tuesday again delayed funds for an expansion of America’s Center after some council members said they wanted to review the regional tourism board’s recommendation that the county build an indoor track facility in north St. Louis County.
The recommendation was produced by a consultant’s study paid for by the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, following a deal the CVC and the county struck in 2019 to help fund the $210 million expansion of the downtown convention center.
Negotiated by former Councilwoman Hazel Erby, the agreement provided that the CVC would approve the expenditure of 35% of the county’s hotel-motel tax revenue that was not already encumbered by other projects on the new North County facility.
On Tuesday, CVC President Kitty Ratcliffe presented the council with a packet outlining why an indoor track facility would best serve the county’s local needs while attracting tourism to the region. But she told the council that it was up to the county to decide what to do with the proposal.
That angered some council members, including Council Chair Rita Days, who accused the agency of walking back its part of the deal. Days, a Democrat, succeeded Erby as the District 1 representative on the council.
The CVC never agreed to design and build the facility — just to study its feasibility and release some unencumbered hotel-motel tax revenues to fund it, Ratcliffe said.
"We said we would support it, and we said we would do the work to try to help identify what it is, but there was absolutely no discussion about us building the project," Ratcliffe said.
Days insisted Erby had wanted the CVC to build the facility.
She vowed to hold the county’s funds for the convention center expansion while she formed a committee to explore her concerns.
“Her understanding was that a building would be built,” Days said. “We’re going to go back and do even more research on this because this is clear as mud in my mind.”
Days, Councilman Mark Harder, R-7th District, and Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-6th District, complained that they would have liked to receives the study in advance of the hearing to be able to go through it and then ask Ratcliffe informed questions.
“You had two-and-a-half years to get this done and you just presented it to us,” Trakas said. “The idea that somehow this couldn’t have been completed sometime sooner than two and a half years is really hard to accept.”
Trakas said he wanted another “bite at the apple,” and asked Days to delay a vote on releasing the CVC funds.
Ratcliffe told the council that the COVID-19 pandemic had shuttered the tourism industry and forced the agency to furlough staff.
The presentation she gave the council included a paper packet detailing a proposal for an indoor, 200-meter track facility that could host multiple events year-round for between 4,000 to 5,000 spectators.
The study, which cost about $20,000, was produced by HVS, a global consulting firm, that interviewed locals and surveyed other cities to determine what facility would meet local needs as well as draw in tourists.
The proposal did not recommend a specific site for the facility, Ratcliffe said. That and other details were now up to the county to figure out how they would proceed.
"It is the same kind of facility that can be used by local track clubs, can be used by local high schools, secondary and primary schools, colleges and universities. We think it’s a great opportunity for you. We’re very willing to try to help in the next steps," she said.
The council also delayed a nonbinding vote to confirm Dr. Faisal Khan as director of public health, opting instead to demand County Executive Sam Page release an internal report reviewing a tense public July 27 council meeting in which Khan gave mask-mandate protesters the middle finger while on his way out.
The next day, Khan, who remains acting health director, wrote a blistering letter criticizing members of the council and alleging that he was shoulder-bumped on the way out. But videos and police officers’ testimony appeared to undercut his claim.
Page said last month that he “reprimanded” Khan for the gesture but declined to release more details.
The council, as a committee of the whole, voted unanimously to meet behind closed doors to discuss Khan’s appointment based on recommendation from County Counselor Beth Orwick that the fallout from the July 27 meeting was a personnel matter.
After reconvening in public session, the council opted to send a letter to Page requesting he release the county’s internal report to them and review video of the meeting. Trakas, who suggested the idea, said the letter would give Page a week to respond.
If he denies the request, the council could vote to try to compel Page to release the report, Trakas said.
“What does the report contain, and does the punishment reasonably reflect that what that report contains in terms of all the evidence — or not? It is important that we find out what’s in that report if we can,” Trakas said. “If we can’t, then I think we resort to litigation if we have to.”
Because the position is a political appointment, the council vote would not be binding. Page plans to keep Khan in the position as acting director should the council vote against his confirmation.
Electric car chargers
In other action, the council delayed a vote for final approval of a bill that would require the addition of electric-car charging stations into some new construction and major building or parking rehabs in unincorporated areas of the county. Kelli Dunaway, D-2nd District, asked the council to hold the bill.