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If You Build It: The saga of a stadium

  

St. Louis — When Gov. Jay Nixon announced a two-man task force last November charged with keeping the NFL in St. Louis and building a new stadium to do just that, the second-term governor appeared at first to be coming a little late to the party.

In November, Nixon announced that Dave Peacock, a former longtime Anheuser-Busch executive and top-tier attorney Bob Blitz would be tackling the job of keeping St. Louis an NFL city, and almost certainly building a high-end stadium to meet that goal.

The move seemed late with the Rams rapidly approaching the end of their lease in the Edward Jones Dome until word later leaked that the office of Mayor Francis Slay, Peacock, and others had begun quietly working for a new stadium more than one year before Nixon’s announcement.

The details rolled in quickly enough. The new stadium would be downtown on the riverfront, a few blocks from the existing Dome. It was planned for a blighted area, a kind of massive single redevelopment, knocking down more than 50 mostly dilapidated buildings in a sweeping change for one of downtown’s roughest areas. Early during the process, Nixon’s task force appeared to be steaming along nicely. Nixon’s office announced deals with Ameren and the local train authorities to move tracks and power lines, St. Louis labor leaders announced 24-hour construction schedules to speed up the build time, the governor announced his intention to secure matching funds from both the NFL and team ownership.

For a little less than $1 billion, St. Louis could have its new stadium. But in politics the devil is nearly always in the details.

Finding Funds

The question remained, from where would Nixon or Slay secure a few hundred million in funds to show the NFL? The league is plans to offer around $450 million for their end of the deal. Within days of the public formation of the task force, some lawmakers were calling on a vote of the people in the St. Louis area to spend the cash. Many believed that the St. Louis area, not the state, should take on the cost.

Eventually, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger expressed his wishes for a public vote before spending county funds. Soon after, Nixon’s task force dropped the county from their financing plan. In the city of St. Louis, with Nixon’s blessing, Edward Jones Dome authorities sued against an ordinance requiring a public vote before spending money on the project. A judge agreed with their arguments, and ruled no public vote was needed.

But the courts no longer represent the final say in the murky future of a new NFL stadium. Nixon’s plan to extend the existing Edward Jones Dome bonds to get about $135 million in funds toward the new stadium originally had lawmakers fuming, Now, key lawmakers in the budget process in both chambers are promising not to fund any new bonds associated with the stadium.

Several lawmakers signed on to a lawsuit in Cole County challenging Nixon’s authority to complete the project on several grounds, a lawsuit Nixon was ultimately dismissed from that was later put to bed by a local St. Louis ruling. Sen. Rob Schaaf, Rep. Jay Barnes, and other state lawmakers have continued to mount public and private challenges to the issuing of new bonds without a public vote.

In both the House and Senate, the Chair and Vice Chair of the Budget Committees have publicly promised not to appropriate any funds to pay for extended dome bonds. Because the agreement between the group managing the dome — the Regional Convention and Sports Complex (RSA) — is “subject to appropriation,” the state is under no obligation to pay debt associated with those bonds.

In January, Doug Nelson, Commissioner of the Office of Administration — where any agreement between the RSA and the state would be signed — said that while Nixon’s office had the authority to simply extend bonds, it didn’t necessarily indicate they would do. Earlier this week, Nixon doubled-down on his plan, saying that any legislative moves to not pay for the bonds would damage the state’s credit rating. But so far that message hasn’t swayed any Republican lawmakers.

In other words, without the support of Republican lawmakers in the budget process, Nixon and the RSA will have a $135 million dollar hole in their plan to bring a brand new NFL stadium to St. Louis. Even if Nelson signs an agreement with the RSA to help pay the bonds — as they did for almost two decades under the current Edward Jones Dome lease — that agreement would remain subject to legislative appropriation.

With the growing number of lawmakers flatly refusing to write the budget item without a vote, funds are quickly getting harder to find.

Nixon’s task force is also eyeing state tax credit funds for a significant chunk of the cost. The task force is seeking $187 million in total state tax credit support, $50 million of which was approved last month, with Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder serving as the sole vote against on the Missouri Development Finance Board.

While Kinder made his objections known in the commentary sections around the state, he was also quickly slapped as a flip-flopper by House Minority Leader Jacob Hummel, a St. Louis Democrat, for supporting tax breaks in 2006 for the Kansas City Chief’s Arrowhead stadium that circumvented the state legislature.

“A quarter-century ago, the bonds in question were passed to fund the Edward Jones Dome, not a new riverfront facility,” Kinder, a candidate for governor in 2016, would later write about his vote. “To extend those bonds and issue new debt not only is, in my view, illegal, it fosters cynicism among voters who already are reluctant to trust government officials with their money.”

 

Looking ahead

The Rams’ original lease at the dome ended last March. Prior to that, the team formally notified stadium authorities that they would be converting their lease to a year-by-year lease, and signing on through at least one more season. Even if Rams owner Stan Kroenke ultimately decides to move the team to Los Angeles, the city has no venue. Although Kroenke could be solving the problem of missing one stadium. The notoriously press-shy figure made huge waves in the area months ago when word broke that he was working with other financiers to build a massive new NFL stadium in Inglewood, California.

Kroenke, who also owns the Denver Nuggets, the Colorado Avalanche and the Denver Pepsi Center, reportedly told NFL owners last month at a meeting that St. Louis “didn’t work” as the Rams home, and spent more than an hour pitching his proposed $1.9 billion, 300-acre stadium proposal for Inglewood, tentatively dubbed the “Los Angeles Entertainment Center.”

It’s a pitch Kroenke has to hope will resonate, even if he manages to build a new stadium in the L.A. area, NFL owners have to approve any team moving to a new city, something stadium supporters say is unlikely if St. Louis produces a high-quality facility.

Slay, for his part, told supporters outside of the last Rams preseason game of the year that he was giving his “word” that the city would have a new stadium and that the Rams would be playing it, a level of optimism not publicly shared by others in the process. Though that rally to support the project also saw counter protestors carrying signs reading “No vote, No stadium.”

Slay, who will be seeking an unprecedented fifth term, is a strong supporter of the project despite the fact that his staff voiced concerns when the court ruled no public vote was needed. He may find himself taking the difficult task of making his case for the stadium next year directly to the legislature if opposition remains entrenched.