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St. Louis soccer stadium wins early support for tax incentives

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ST. LOUIS • A committee of city aldermen unanimously passed a tax incentive plan for a proposed Major League Soccer stadium here, a first step that came more quickly and with less debate than some feared, suggesting the team ownership group may have a relatively swift path through City Hall.

The aldermen spent Wednesday morning publicly dissecting the proposal, inside a city hearing room packed to the doors with scarf-wearing soccer fans. The room’s unused balcony even was opened.

Aldermen grilled the ownership group, represented by Enterprise Holdings Foundation Executive Director Carolyn Kindle Betz, on stadium financing, maintenance, construction worker pay and the as-yet-unknown costs of stadium ownership. Kindle Betz and other team representatives said repeatedly that the city would not be on the hook for extra costs.

“I don’t know any other way to say it,” said Thompson Coburn attorney Bill Kuehling, who is working for the owners. “The team will be responsible for all costs under that lease.”

The proposal passed on Wednesday is just a first step. It must win approval by the full board, perhaps as soon as Friday. And, as a resolution, it outlines only a plan — it doesn’t create the laws required to secure tax incentives. Aldermen will have to vote on those later.

Still, it provides a set of incentives that the city and ownership group have agreed upon. It includes a full exemption on construction material sales tax, free use of the site — state highway land just west of Union Station on Market Street — plus a 50 percent break on ticket taxes and the addition of a 3 percent sales tax on goods sold at the stadium. It also recommends funneling the other half of the ticket tax into a city fund to support future stadium improvements.

And its passage leaves the St. Louis ownership group — World Wide Technology chief executive Jim Kavanaugh and Enterprise Holdings’ Taylor family — poised to show the MLS that it has secured a stadium site and won swift and surprisingly unified support from city aldermen, as the team prepares to send its application for an expansion team to the league next month.

That’s not to say Wednesday’s hearing was swift. It started at 9 a.m. with Aldermanic President Lewis Reed introducing the resolution and urging aldermen to see the proposal not as soccer alone.

“This is not just about a stadium,” Reed said. “We need a major anchor in Downtown West.”

And the city’s development arm argued that the stadium proposal, which it gave a rare five-star rating, would provide an immediate influx of tax dollars — about $1.4 million a year or $41 million over 30 years.

Aldermen peppered the ownership group with concerns, from minority participation rates to stadium ownership to the lack of development in other parts of the city.

“My only fear is we’re not planning for long-term growth in poverty-stricken communities,” 21st Ward Alderman John Collins-Muhammad said. “When will we plan for growth on the North Side?”

A few aldermen asked why the team didn’t want to own the stadium.

Kuehling, the ownership group’s attorney, said that the project, termed “quasi-philanthropic” by some city leaders, simply wouldn’t make enough to pay property taxes, too. Forcing the team to pay them, he warned, could kill the deal.

Most of the officials in attendance largely concluded their speeches with glowing admiration for the proposal and the ownership group.

Alderman Tom Oldenburg, Ward 16, called the stadium “a catalytic project.”

St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams called the project “a no-brainer.” Schools, which are largely funded by property taxes, lose the most when such taxes are abated. But Adams said that soccer was on the rise in city schools, as football’s popularity drops, and that the Taylors were trusted partners.

Even Ward 24 Alderman Scott Ogilvie, known for his skepticism of such taxpayer funding, voiced support. “I don’t see any other project using this site, ever,” Ogilvie said.

Still, he said the lease between the team and the city, which has yet to be negotiated, “will be of the utmost importance.”

Three-and-a-half hours later, the aldermen’s Housing, Urban Development and Zoning committee voted 8-0 to pass the resolution on to the full Board of Aldermen for final approval. Board leadership had originally anticipated the resolution wouldn’t come out of committee until next week.

Two aldermen on the committee, Ogilvie and Terry Kennedy, Ward 18, left before the vote was taken. Neither is seeking re-election.

The MLS has said it wants to grow to 28 teams, leaving two slots after the pending additions of Cincinnati, Miami and Nashville, Tenn.

“This is not a slam dunk,” Deputy Mayor for Development Linda Martinez cautioned on Wednesday. “We have real competition.”

The league’s Board of Governors is scheduled to meet in mid-December in New York, though the league said there was no set schedule for awarding the final two franchises.


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