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Windfall from NFL settlement won’t change St. Louis convention center expansion plan, mayor says

From the Essential reading: St. Louis’ lawsuit against the Los Angeles Rams, NFL owners series
America's Center expansion

America's Center sits between the Dome and the C-9 parking garage which is being demolished by construction crews on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021, in St. Louis. Photo by Daniel Shular, dshular@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS — The Dome at America’s Center is a “unique” asset that will help downtown St. Louis continue to attract conventions and events, Mayor Tishaura O. Jones says, providing a vote of confidence for a 26-year-old stadium some say may not be worth the cost of maintenance without an NFL team.

The mayor’s comments come as the board that owns The Dome at America’s Center is set to receive a windfall from the Rams relocation lawsuit settlement — a roughly $500 million check split between St. Louis, St. Louis County and the St. Louis Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority that owns the Dome.

Jones, in a Monday interview, said last week’s $790 million settlement with the NFL and Rams over the team’s 2016 relocation to Los Angeles has not changed the city’s position on the convention center project. Prominent and politically connected businessman Bob Clark has suggested the convention center be redesigned and the attached Dome demolished.

“No, that’s not a conversation I’m willing to have,” Jones said when asked whether the Clayco founder and chairman’s recent campaign for a larger, redesigned convention center expansion might gain traction following the Rams settlement. “We’ve already started down the process for (construction) bids ... so that process should continue.”

Clark went public in September with his objections to the America’s Center Project — a project that has been moving through both city and county government for three years.

Now, depending on how $500 million after attorney fees is divided among St. Louis County, the city and the entity that owns the Dome, the Dome’s owner will have a potentially huge new pool of resources to either improve the Rams’ old home — or demolish it.

Clark’s plan calls for demolishing the structure, which is attached to America’s Center, and reorienting the footprint of the convention center expansion. Jones, though, said keeping the Dome could help the region compete for events and conventions.

“The Dome that’s attached to our convention center puts us in a unique position,” she said. “We have a unique niche, and I expect our regional sports authority along with our Convention and Visitors Commission to leverage that niche and leverage it for our benefit for specific conventions that need that kind of space.”

The Dome authority receives $2 million annually from Missouri and $1 million each from the city and county for yearly maintenance and repair of the facility, but those payments are scheduled to stop in 2024. The St. Louis Business Journal in September reported that the Dome was facing big capital needs, including a large roof repair.

Jim Shrewsbury, chairman of the Dome authority, said the entity was still under a gag order from the court stemming from the lawsuit. Brian McMurtry, the Dome authority’s executive director, did not respond to a request for comment.

The Convention and Visitors Commission, known as Explore St. Louis, manages the Dome under a contract with the Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority that runs through 2028. CVC Director Kitty Ratcliffe said the Dome and its connection to America’s Center offers the region a “competitive advantage” attracting conventions — particularly corporate, religious and direct sales groups that want stadium-seating.

“It has been an interesting asset for us to have since 1995,” Ratcliffe said Tuesday. “There were very few cities that had a configuration like ours with a convention center and a stadium attached. So it allowed us to punch above our weight if you will.”

Pre-pandemic, the Dome was used for 50 to 60 events per year, she said, helping draw an average of 400,000 to 500,000 attendees and booking 150,000 to 200,000 hotel room nights per year.

“That’s not local money that’s being spread around, that’s new money that’s being brought into our community,” Ratcliffe said.

How the Dome authority chooses to spend its money rests with its board, Ratcliffe said. But her organization has worked closely with the Dome owners since the structure was built, and it has mentioned potential upgrades such as better connections between the Dome and America’s Center.

“We do have and have had over the years a variety of different analyses done on ways to make the Dome an even better asset than it already is,” Ratcliffe said. “There are some long term improvements that could be made and we’d be happy to discuss those with the (Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority) when the time is right.”

But first, Ratcliffe’s group needs to win support from the St. Louis County Council.

County Council Chair Rita Heard Days, D-1st District, has held up final approval of the county’s half of $210 million in bonds to finance the expansion of America’s Center, stalling a project for which the city has already issued bonds and started demolition and design work.

Days wants some of the settlement money to pay for a recreation center in north St. Louis County that officials at the CVC agreed to support more than two years ago. The initial funding source envisioned for the project, hotel-motel taxes, were hard hit by the pandemic and need several years to recover before they generate enough revenue to cover the cost of the rec center, according to county budget officials.

Days, whose majority-Black district would be the likely site for the rec center, wrote in a letter last month that a final vote on issuing county bonds would be delayed until she could secure a commitment on the proposed facility.

Days said Monday she had no reason to think the plan wouldn’t come to fruition.

“This was money that was not earmarked for anything, and I don’t know why it could not be used for that,” she said.

The county could use a portion of its money for the project, as could the Dome authority, which is allowed under state law to construct and maintain recreation facilities.

Nassim Benchaabane and Ben Frederickson of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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