CLAYTON • St. Louis County appears poised to follow the lead of St. Louis and commit $240 million over four decades for an expansion and upgrade to America’s Center in downtown St. Louis.
The St. Louis County Council voted 6-1, with Republican Ernie Trakas voting in dissent, on March 12 to advance the measure to a final vote. Although final passage of the bill is on Tuesday’s council agenda, its sponsor, Hazel Erby, D-1st District, said she might table the matter until after the county’s legal staff provides an opinion on whether the project is subject to the county’s minority inclusion requirements.
Support from the city and county governments is necessary for the measure to move forward. With scant opposition to the project, it appears to have a clear path. The St. Louis Board of Aldermen voted 21-3 in December to approve the city’s contribution. The measures have the support of Mayor Lyda Krewson and County Executive Steve Stenger.
The public support would finance a $175 million plan to expand and upgrade America’s Center. The measure’s supporters say the project is needed to boost tourism and draw more conventions to the city, allowing St. Louis to better compete with peers such as Indianapolis and Nashville, Tenn., which have revamped their tourism infrastructure in recent years by investing hundreds of millions of dollars.
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 surface parking lot.
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 Rams, who left in 2016 — would 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.
Hotel guests in St. Louis city and county won’t be asked to shoulder any new taxes for the downtown convention center’s expansion. The city and county would each continue to make $6 million annual payments for 40 years. There is no commitment from the state for additional revenue, but supporters have said they hope the state could be convinced to support future expansion.
Kathleen “Kitty” Ratcliffe, president of the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, which operates America’s Center, told the council on Feb. 26 that the convention center was a critical tool for bringing money from other cities into St. Louis. And she said last week that America’s Center did not have a suitable ballroom when the Urban League had its national convention in St. Louis, so some families behind a few major corporations stepped up to pay for the exhibit hall to be converted to a ballroom.
The measure has drawn opposition from Tom Sullivan, a local government watchdog who also opposed the county’s sales tax to support the St. Louis Zoo. Sullivan told council members on March 5 that they should not support the plan because “the promised results never come about. Never.”
Speaking directly to Erby, Sullivan pointed to how the money could be used to build up St. Louis County. “Some of the $240 million could go to improve the Wellston shopping district,” he said. “Some could also go for housing and neighborhood improvements; sidewalks, streetlights, playgrounds. This would also create a lot of jobs.”