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Stadium task force started work a year ago, quietly

Stadium task force started work a year ago, quietly

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ST. LOUIS • Three civic leaders began planning for a new football stadium months before Gov. Jay Nixon announced his two-man task force.

Retired Anheuser-Busch President Dave Peacock, outgoing mayoral Chief of Staff Jeff Rainford and downtown business association President Doug Woodruff were quietly, privately emailing and meeting by at least July of last year, according to records obtained by the Post-Dispatch.

“Think about how we create an entity that can ‘represent’ the region with the Rams, make proposals and avoid the Sunshine Laws until such a time that we’re far enough along to have a real idea to share publicly,” Peacock wrote to Rainford and Woodruff on July 24.

The governor needs to “be seen as initiating this or at least endorsing it,” Peacock continued. Moreover, he said, the governor and city’s mayor need a “scapegoat if we fail.”

“I’m fine being the guy either way,” Peacock wrote. “I have nothing to lose like others. I’d deflect everything from public entities and just take the blame.”

Three months later, on Nov. 5, Nixon announced he was appointing Peacock and Edward Jones Dome attorney Bob Blitz to a task force meant to keep the National Football League in St. Louis.

The emails focus largely on administrative tasks — planning meetings, discussing organizational options, sharing contacts. But they reveal, for the first time publicly, when civic leaders began planning their fight to keep the St. Louis Rams, how they chose the north riverfront site, and who was driving the effort. At one point, it even included former Missouri Speaker of the House John Diehl.

Peacock, Rainford and Woodruff all acknowledged on Wednesday that they had been meeting and talking well before Nixon was involved.

“What sneaking behind people’s backs did we do?” Rainford said on Wednesday.

“We started thinking about it. We didn’t spend money. We didn’t commit to anything,” Rainford said. “That’s what you do when you’re prudent. That’s what you do when you’re doing your job well. You think ahead.”

Rainford said he and Mayor Francis Slay began talking to Peacock in 2012, soon after he left Anheuser-Busch. They figured Peacock would be perfect to work on such a project, said Rainford, who has since left his city job and is now consulting for Woodruff’s agency, Downtown STL.

Peacock had run a major company, had NFL connections, and, suddenly, had time.

That year, the city was negotiating with the Rams on lease-required upgrades to the Jones Dome, where the Rams play. The St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission had recommended $124 million in renovations; the Rams asked for upgrades the city estimated at about $700 million. The case was slated to go to arbitration in 2013.

“Just in case we lose,” Rainford recalled asking Peacock, “could you start thinking about a Plan B? If we didn’t get moving, the bus was going to leave without us,” he said.

By the middle of 2014, Woodruff had been hired by Downtown STL and the three were communicating regularly, Rainford said.

City records track some of that communication. The documents, nearly all emails, were requested through Missouri public records laws by John Ammann, a professor and attorney at the St. Louis University legal clinic, who is working with students and residents on various stadium issues. Ammann shared the records with the Post-Dispatch.

One of the earliest emails is dated July 7, 2014. In it, Rainford asks Peacock and Woodruff about professional soccer. “I do know deep pockets,” Peacock replied, “and either custom or new stadium will be needed. Still think the Rams situation provides an opportunity to solve football and soccer …”

A few weeks later, Woodruff emailed Diehl, the former House speaker, at his Armstrong Teasdale law firm. “Can you join Jeff, Dave and me at a meeting Tuesday at 10:00 to talk about the Stadium. There’s some urgency in light of a conversation Dave had with the NFL,” Woodruff wrote. “We’re meeting at the Four Seasons to be able to look over the site.”

That email identifies the riverfront site — just north of the Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis at Lumière Place — three months before Nixon announced the task force, and five months before Peacock and Blitz revealed stadium drawings at a Union Station news conference.

Woodruff said on Wednesday that the group was once considering four sites: the old Chrysler plant in Fenton, Paul McKee’s NorthPark, the south riverfront, and the spot north of Lumière.

“There was no big vote, there was no polling or anything else. It quickly became a matter of — it met more of the priorities we needed to get things going quickly,” Woodruff said. “And quite frankly everyone concurred that the best place was for it to be in or near downtown.

“The north riverfront of downtown needs to be redeveloped,” he continued. “North of Lumière is desolate. That’s terrible for a city that rests on one of the world’s great rivers.”

Near the end of July, last summer, Woodruff sent Peacock and Rainford a draft “predevelopment plan,” listing more than a dozen steps toward stadium development. He argued for the creation of a nonprofit to spearhead the work. And, he identifies a chief: “Dave Peacock should lead,” the predevelopment plan says.

Nixon was at first slow to engage, the emails say.

But Rainford and Mary Ellen Ponder, Slay’s current chief of staff, both said Wednesday that he has since played a key role.

“In order for us to be taken seriously, we had to have the state take the lead, and for the state to take the lead, we had to have the governor take the lead,” Ponder said. The city, alone, she said, “wouldn’t be a credible proposal.”

Rainford said the real action started when Nixon appointed the task force.

Peacock said the early work was essential; that the task force would be in trouble now without it. “Would we be too far behind to catch up?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

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