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New exhibit space expansion

New exhibit space would be added along Cole Street on the site of an existing parking garage a city economic development agency bought last year, freeing up space for a new ballroom double the size of the existing one in America's Center. Rendering courtesy of Convention and Visitors Commission

CLAYTON • The St. Louis County Council is set to vote next Tuesday on a proposal to commit $240 million over four decades for an expansion and upgrade to America’s Center in downtown St. Louis.

The council voted 6-1 on Tuesday to adopt a bill with three significant last-minute changes to the proposal, which has been on the council’s agenda for several weeks. A final vote on the revamped bill is set for next Tuesday, Council Chairman Sam Page said.

The county’s support would help finance a $175 million plan to expand and upgrade America’s Center. The measure’s supporters have said the project is needed to draw more conventions, allowing St. Louis to better compete with peers such as Indianapolis and Nashville, Tenn., which invested hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade their tourism infrastructure. Some critics have said the county could use the money for other improvements.

Changes to the legislation came amid discussions between some council members and representatives of the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission. Under the new terms, construction on the project would have to satisfy the county’s minority inclusion requirements. The county’s support would be contingent on the city of St. Louis paying the same amount as the county, and the county government would have an opportunity to review the whole project’s financing before executing the contract.

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen voted 21-3 in December to approve the city’s contribution.

In perhaps the most significant development, the county would dedicate some funds from its hotel and motel tax to build a recreational and entertainment complex in north St. Louis County.

Specifics about that component, which had never previously been discussed in public and were apparently drafted earlier Tuesday, were not available later in the day.

The America’s Center 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.

Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-6th District, cast the lone dissenting vote, saying “simply to gloss over a quarter of a billion dollar commitment is reckless. … The money that’s going to be taken for this bill is sorely needed in other places.”

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Jeremy Kohler is an investigative reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.