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Stenger donors get a sweet deal in Wellston

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For more than a decade, St. Louis County has waited for the right proposal to redevelop two industrial properties it owned in Wellston, hoping to bring some jobs to the downtrodden inner ring suburb.

It has taken even longer than that to get the sites prepared for redevelopment. For 30 years the county has owned the vacant 15-acre Wagner Electric site near Wellston’s MetroLink stop, now known as the Plymouth Industrial Park. In the mid-2000s, the county assembled 24 acres just across Page avenue from Plymouth into what is now known as the Wellston Industrial Park.

Cleanup and new infrastructure took millions of dollars. In the last three months, both sites finally sold.

“I can’t believe somebody hasn’t bought it before now,” said Doug LaClair of LaClair Construction Services, one of the members of the investment group that bought them.

But the buyers aren’t sure yet when development will start or what will go there.

What is known is that St. Louis County’s Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority, which owned the sites, sold both for far less than their appraised values. And two members of the investment group, John G. Rallo and Corey Christanell, have given more than $30,000 to St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, either personally or through companies linked to them.

“I don’t know anything about that,” LaClair said when asked about the contributions.

Rallo, said last week that it “was definitely a blighted area” but that the group was “attracted with what was going on around it with the MET (Metropolitan Education and Training Center),” a county-owned employment training facility that partners with a host of area organizations.

However, Rallo, in a brief phone interview, said there was “nothing solid” yet for the two sites.

LaClair said earlier this month he’s hoping to attract some light industrial or distribution companies to the sites.

“We’ve had a lot of activity but no one’s signed on the dotted line yet,” he said.

Katy Jamboretz, a spokeswoman for the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, which staffs the LCRA, said Wellston Holdings was the high bidder on requests for proposals issued for the sites.

Plymouth Industrial Park, appraised at $1.56 million according to county real estate records, sold for $251,000. Wellston Industrial Park, which county records appraise at $872,800, sold for $276,000. A floor price was set for each. There was one other bidder for Plymouth and a total of three bids were submitted for the Wellston Industrial Park, Jamboretz said in a written response to questions from the Post-Dispatch.

“We set a reserve price that reflected the fact that we had been trying to sell these industrial parks for more than 15 years,” Jamboretz wrote. “As an economic development organization, we viewed the millions of dollars that would be invested and hundreds of jobs created as a major benefit to the community.”

LaClair, though, characterized the county LCRA and Economic Development Partnership’s marketing of the sites as lacking.

“They haven’t done anything,” he said. “We’re marketing the snot out of it.”

Stenger, who has the power to appoint a majority of board members to the Economic Development Partnership, said he had no involvement in the decision on the Wellston properties.

“It is my understanding that the Wellston properties were awarded to the highest bidder,” Stenger said in a statement. “I applaud the efforts of those willing to take a risk for the betterment of our community.”

‘Unusual’ investment

Months before the Wellston deals closed, an entity controlled by the Economic Development Partnership lent a company registered to Rallo almost $500,000.

In January, Rallo and the Economic Development Partnership executed a deed of trust pledging a Creve Coeur building owned by North Warson Partners LLC as collateral for a $489,200 loan. Rallo signed the document as manager of North Warson Partners.

Rallo’s company had already purchased the building at 1201 North Warson Road for $1.1 million, according to county real estate records. A September deed of trust between North Warson Partners and St. Louis Bank lists the building as collateral for a $1.08 million loan.

On Jan. 31, the same day of the deed of trust between Rallo and the Economic Development Partnership, Rallo and St. Louis Bank executed a modification of their deed of trust. The modification described in that document: “Principal decrease to $600,000.”

“It would be unusual to make an investment of this size without a commitment of substantial reinvestment in the property and job creation,” said Denny Coleman, who led the Economic Development Partnership and its predecessor, the St. Louis County Economic Council, for more than 20 years.

One of the Wellston properties was under contract at the time of the loan. The county LCRA board had approved an agreement with Wellston Holdings in October for the Plymouth Industrial Park. By December, the LCRA entered into an option agreement giving the company 120 days to exercise.

Wellston Holdings exercised its option for Plymouth Industrial on March 3, and the sale closed June 1. A purchase agreement for Wellston Industrial Park was reached in May, and that sale closed earlier this month.

Asked about the reason for the loan, Jamboretz said STL Partnership CDC, a separate organization, made the loan. “The CDC has its own loan review and credit approval process for all the applicants each year looking to it for small business loans,” she said.

“It has a loan review committee that is made up of bankers and financial services professionals,” she added. “It doesn’t have any appointees on it.”

The STL Partnership CDC is staffed by Economic Development Partnership officials. Judy Cromer, a vice president at the partnership, is listed as the CDC’s president.

The North Warson building — within the footprint of the “39 North” plant science district Stenger and Economic Development Partnership officials are promoting — already contains tenants. Dimensions Dance Center is located there. It also contains a gardening store, St. Louis Hydroponic Company.

Wellston Holdings, the company that now owns the industrial parks, registered with the secretary of state’s office shortly after North Warson Partners bought the Creve Coeur building. It lists its address at the North Warson Road building in registration documents filed with the state.

So does a company registered to Christanell: 3Gems Nutrition. It has a website promoting a product called Boss Nutrients Heavy Boost. It appears to be a sort of plant nutrient, and the Facebook page for Boss Nutrients makes references to marijuana horticulture. Websites Stuff Stoners Like and Herb promote the Boss Nutrients and Heavy Boost for better marijuana growth.

A website for a company registered to Rallo, B&B Packaging Group LLC, has little product information. But it does promote the Heavy Boost plant enhancer on its products page.

After being reached last week, Rallo said he would call back but indicated he was with people for a meeting. He has not returned follow-up calls. Christanell, a former Anheuser-Busch executive according to his LinkedIn profile, did not respond to messages sent to an email listed for him with the secretary of state.

Christanell gave a lump $10,000 donation to Stenger in 2016, and he followed up with two contributions totaling $5,000 this year. The company he lists as his occupation, Brentwood Capital Partners, gave $2,500 to Stenger this year and $3,000 last year.

Cardinal Insurance Group, which Rallo says he is president of on his LinkedIn profile and shares the same Ballwin address as Brentwood Capital Partners in campaign finance records, made $2,500 contributions to Stenger’s campaign in 2014, 2016 and 2017. Rallo’s LinkedIn profile also identifies him as managing partner of Brentwood Capital Partners.

B&B Packaging Group, the other company registered to Rallo, gave $2,500 to Stenger last year. RRMW LLC, also registered to Rallo, gave $5,000 total in 2015.

Stenger’s statement distanced himself from the actions of entities staffed by the Economic Development Partnership.

“Neither the County nor I have authority over the loan committee and the suggestion that the County or I somehow manipulated the purchase of two vacant dilapidated properties in Wellston and a loan approved by an independent board in exchange for a campaign contribution is nonsensical,” Stenger said.

While the first Wellston property sold in early June, Economic Development Partnership officials did not say anything publicly about the deal until late last week, after the Post-Dispatch began asking questions and sent in a records request.

In a press release received by the Post-Dispatch Friday morning, the Economic Development Partnership touted the sale of the properties, saying private developers have announced $87.5 million in redevelopment that will result in 600 jobs in logistics, warehousing and other industrial uses on the two properties.

“Real progress is being made in Wellston in increasing economic opportunities for working families,” Sheila Sweeney, chief executive of the Economic Development Partnership, said in the release. “These strategic investments will promote the long-term success of Wellston and the greater North County region.”


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