Weighing in on how to keep the St. Louis Rams from moving back to Los Angeles, former St. Louis Mayor Vince Schoemehl supports building a new stadium for the team. But the proposed location is wrong, he said.
“This building needs to be built in Illinois,” Schoemehl told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Monday. “We are never going to recapture downtown or reestablish downtown as the center of this region until we create a impetus to rebuild the Illinois side of the river. I think that stadium, especially the way it’s designed with a capacity to handle a soccer team, I think that could be a great economic driver for Illinois and for the east side of the region.”
Stadium plans, unveiled Friday, call for developing a 90-acre site between the Gateway Arch and the new Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River. The 64,000-seat open-air stadium would accommodate an NFL team as well as a Major League Soccer team. The Rams current home, the Edward Jones Dome, would be remodeled into a full-time convention center.
Schoemehl was St. Louis’ mayor from 1981 to 1993. Construction on the dome started in 1992; it opened in 1995.
“I’m very proud of the fact that I engineered the financing and the construction of the Edward Jones Dome,” he said. “I’m more proud of the fact that I didn’t sign that lease.”
That lease required that the facility remain in the top 25 percent of the nation’s professional football stadiums. Two years ago, the Rams asked for $700 million in upgrades to the Dome, including a retractable roof. Local leaders said no, which turned the team’s 30-year lease into a year-to-year lease.
Last week, Rams owner Stan Kroenke announced his plans to build an 80,000-seat NFL stadium in Los Angeles. Four days later, a task force appointed by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon unveiled details on their own stadium plan, which was in the works before Kroenke’s announcement.
“The fact that this is going to be a duel facility, you’re going to get either an NFL team or you’re going to get a soccer team or you may get both,” Schoemehl said.
“I’m an absolute regionalist,” he said, echoing a sentiment expressed last week by St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. “I think you have to continue to invest, but I really cannot overstate how important it is that we include metro east in the development of the future of this region, or downtown St. Louis is never going to be successful again.”
Leading, And Leaving, Grand Center
For the past 13 years, Schoemehl has been the president of Grand Center Inc., a nonprofit organization that supports the historic Grand Center district that is home to many arts and entertainment venues, like Powell Hall and the Fox Theatre. Schoemehl announced his retirement from that post on Dec. 30, but remains on the job until his successor is chosen.
“I think this is a perfect time for a transition in leadership at Grand Center,” he said. “We started a master planning process for the district that led to a very comprehensive shared vision of what the future of Grand Center looks like, physically and organizationally. That’s going to be a seven to 10 year project, and I’m not going to be here for seven to 10 years.”
Work also recently began on the Missouri Theater building, one of the last vacant historic buildings in the original district. Future plans include building parking garages and residential buildings in some of the district’s vacant lots and parking lots.
“Rehabbing vacant buildings that use a whole series of (a) different mix of tax credits and whatnot, that’s a very different type of development activity than building on vacant land,” Schoemehl said. “So both from a physical development and a planning implementation standpoint, I think it’s just time for a new leadership.”
Over the past 13 years, Schoemehl said there has been a renewed interest in defining and building the Grand Center district.
“The sense of district got lost in the 50s, 60s, 70s. People, they just didn’t understand the value in a sense of a district,” he said. “There’s a growing sense that what we have here is a collective neighborhood in a arts and culture district.”
Looking ahead, Schoemehl said the district needs to work on becoming more accessible.
“The main thrust has got to be to get this neighborhood to be walkable, to be pedestrian- and bike-friendly,” he said. “To make, it, candidly, more like the Central West End or the Loop than it is right now.
“The quality of the artistic offering that has to go on inside Powell Hall has to be infinitely better than if it were in a neighborhood where people wanted to come anyway. I say to people all the time, if I could take Powell Hall and put it on the north side of Maryland Plaza, where those houses are across the street from the Chase (Park Plaza), they’d sell 25 percent more tickets. You can’t take Powell Hall to Maryland Plaza, but you can replicate a streetscape and an urban design and a pedestrian-embracing environment that will make people want to come here, and it will help every one of the 40-plus not-for-profit organizations that are now located here fulfill their missions.”
Improving St. Louis’ Image
Part of Schoemehl’s role with Grand Center Inc. has focused on fundraising. That won’t change for the district or for the arts, he said, but Schoemehl said he expects to see even more private investors.
“I think they’re going to be motivated to invest in St. Louis more than they have been in the past. Everybody, I think, realizes we’ve taken a big knock nationally.”
That knock came after the August shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer in nearby Ferguson. Images of local riots and vandalism were broadcast around the world after Brown’s death and again after a grand jury decided not to indict former police Officer Darren Wilson. Protests and conversations about race and equality continue today.
“How do we take this and turn it around so that St. Louis becomes the center of learning about race relations for the next decade?” Schoemehl asked. “There is some work going on to begin to think about how St. Louis becomes the place that demonstrates to the rest of the country on a consistent basis here’s what you do to deal with income disparities, racial segregation, education disparities, police-community relations, all of the things that are necessary to create an equitable society. I think that’s the challenge, and if we can find the platform for this community to take that on, I think we could, a decade from now, become the center for post-racial America.”
“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.