When Dave Peacock stepped before a crush of reporters at Union Station last week, his main purpose was to showcase the potential of a new football stadium on St Louis’ riverfront.
Part of his pitch was economic, which is a typical tactic to gather support for expensive sports facilities. After all, a new stadium could lead to thousands of construction jobs and continued business for surrounding bars and restaurants.
But for Peacock, there were more intangible reasons for the city to pursue the project — something beyond just dollars and cents.
“It’s about the future of our region. It’s about how we’re perceived,” the former Anheuser-Busch executive said. “It’s about no longer accepting the notion that our assets can just dissolve in front of us or leave. And we have to fight for what is rightfully ours.”
As the St. Louis Rams consider moving to Los Angeles, people around the region have been focused on how regional leaders should respond. But there’s another ongoing debate: Whether it makes sense to have a football team at all.
Backers say the NFL provides an economic boost to the region and a dose of pride for St. Louisans.
Others aren’t so sure that having a team is worth the price – especially if it requires an additional public investment. And the overall economic impact of a new stadium is up for some serious debate.
“I think very few would argue that it’s the end of the world or the end of the world economically or even that it would have a direct impact on economic growth,” said Washington University economic professor Dan Elfenbein. “It’s part of the overall bundle of amenities that the city has to offer. And it can be substituted for by other things. Its importance in the bundle is really hard to determine.”
Filling the void
Doug Woodruff may have an insider’s view of what happens when a football team leaves a city.
Woodruff, the president of Downtown STL, Inc., was the banker for the St. Louis football Cardinals before they bolted for Arizona. He said the team’s departure from the city left a void within the community.
“It was demoralizing. It was demoralizing when they left,” Woodruff said. “I remember I worked for a bank at the time called Boatman’s Bank. Boatman’s was one of four downtown headquartered banks and we all looked at each other and said, ‘Why would they have left?’ Well, they left because the community didn’t respond in a positive way to supporting them staying.”
Flash-forward to today and the situation is somewhat similar. The St. Louis Rams can now operate on a year-to-year lease on the Edward Jones Dome, which the team doesn’t feel is suitable. And St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke unveiled plans to build stadium in Inglewood, California – one of the clearest indications he may move the team back to Los Angeles.
In response, Gov. Jay Nixon tasked Peacock and St. Louis attorney Bob Blitz to come up with a response of sorts. What the pair proposed was an open-air stadium on St. Louis’ riverfront that could also serve as the home base for a soccer team.
For pigskin proponents, the argument for the new stadium is partly about economic development and partly about regional pride. Ryan Loeffler, the co-owner of Big Daddy’s on Laclede’s Landing, said the new stadium would fit in nicely with an overhaul of the Gateway Arch grounds.
Those two huge projects, he said, could help his bottom line.
“The money that they’re going to spend down there [on the stadium] and the money that they’re spending on the Arch Grounds, I am right in the middle of about $1.3 billion of development,” Loeffler said. “If I can’t make money down here with all that going on, I need to find a new profession.”
Woodruff agrees. He said a new stadium would revamp a languishing portion of downtown St. Louis and free up space at the Edward Jones Dome for conventions. He said the region’s convention and visitors bureau estimated that arrangement could bring anywhere from $20 to $22 million in economic development.
“The Rams use that facility 10 days a year, eight of them during the regular season,” Woodruff said. “We can only hope to have more playoff games in the future. But that’s the result of a bad deal. That’s a result of a deal that put the Rams in a stadium situation that ultimately is good for them – and that’s been made pretty clear. And probably not good for the community. Because that asset is better used as a convention center than it is for eight or 10 years for just football.”
“And so, the opportunity we have here is to actually put the Rams wanting a new facility and the ability to reuse the existing facility in a much more effective manner together and in a way that should elevate economic development here,” he added.
Money or pride?
But the arguments to keep a team here aren't just about economics — pride plays a role too.
“I think the city of St. Louis would become second tier,” said Loeffler, adding that his bar would also lose money from the games no longer happening. “And they keep using the word tier as in a first tier stadium. I would consider the city being second tier because we don’t have a NFL team. I think we would lose out on a lot of other things because we don’t have one.”
More than any concrete economic impact, Woodruff said the loss of the team could have an effect on the perception of the St. Louis area. He added having professional sports are “all part of the mix” of developing the region’s culture.
“I think from a community psyche — and not just the internal community psyche that we all in St. Louis often think about but in the competitive of psyche of the country — not being an NFL franchise is a detriment,” Woodruff said. “It’s more of a detriment in the Midwest because we compete with a lot of other cities that have this as an attribute.”
Both St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger said there’s a quality of life and prestige bump for cities with NFL teams.
“I think there’s a certain stature that you receive being a city that has an NFL team,” Stenger said. “I think that there are tourism dollars that come into play. I think that as far as a portfolio of professional sports teams goes, it’s important that we have the Cardinals, that we have the Rams or some other NFL team.”
Patrick Rishe, an economics professor at Webster University, said the departure of professional football could cause St. Louis to lose out on other sporting events. And he said it could produce a dent in the region’s prestige.
“Certainly there’s visibility and exposure for the city and downtown area that comes with having a professional football team,” Rishe said. “Football is the most popular sport by far in this country. And certainly now it has a global appeal. And so when you have a team that is in the league, you have some visibility for even your community for at least eight Sundays a year. That’s giving the city some national exposure.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the idea of a building a new stadium just when the departure of the Rams appears imminent isn’t getting a universally warm reception.
Some are wary about “extending” bonds that are currently paying off the Edward Jones Dome. Even though Stenger said that type of proposal wouldn’t legally require a public vote, others contend that the city and county's charters would require such a move.
“Voters in both St. Louis and St. Louis County approved measures that give them the final say before tax dollars can be spent on a new sports stadium,” said Fred Lindecke, spokesperson for the Coalition Against Public Funding for Stadiums, in a statement.
Even though backers of the idea aren’t positing that proposal as a tax increase, St. Louis Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, sees it as a distinction without a difference.
He also said the Rams’ status as a perennially mediocre squad isn’t helping matters.
“I think the population of the St. Louis area — both city and county — are not very excited about a tax increase for this project,” Harder said. “I think there’s some bad blood concerning the Rams. And this would be kind of a reward. If you don’t put a good team on the field, we’re going to build you a new place where you can not put another good team on the field. Those don’t go together.”
Others, such as Maryland Heights resident Heather Clark-Evans, observed it’s easier for St. Louisans to focus on the plight of sports teams as opposed to tough issues like poverty and homelessness.
“It’s much easier to be like —‘oh I’m going to worry about this!' ” Clark-Evans said, referring to sports teams. “Because it’s inconsequential and people know it’s inconsequential. So if it doesn’t work out, nobody dies. Whereas in these other circumstances, it’s just easier for people to not look at the bad part of it — to not worry about the bad of it.”
Chuck Korr is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who has written several books about professional sports. He was tapped by local officials for information during the early 1990s effort to woo the Rams.
He doesn’t buy the argument that a football team equates to being a “big league city.” He noted that neither Portland nor San Antonio have football teams, yet are still considered major cities.
Korr said the region should focus on the Ferguson Commission, the state legislature and the troubled Normandy School district. Focusing on the proposed new stadium and the Rams is “an unhelpful diversion.”
“If you look at the literature over the years, I don’t think you can find any place that will make a convincing argument that it is worth the expenditure of public money to pay for the facilities for a pro football to play,” Korr said. “There’s the intangible of what it brings to the region, in terms of prestige.”
Elfenbein, the Washington University professor, said there are tangible economic benefits of having a NFL team – such as state and local tax revenue. It may not be as great as it seems, he said, because many Rams players and employees may not live here.
“If the question will the city fall off the map if the Rams leave? Obviously the answer is going to be no,” he said.
But he went onto say that there is some tangible benefit in fostering community pride – especially if its part of a package that attracts new residents or businesses here.
“Some of the most important people for the growth of region — now that we live in the modern knowledge economy — is being able to attract and retain young talented people,” Elfenbein said. “And the culture in the city, the type of amenities in the city and maybe even the football team impact that. And that’s going to be very important for St. Louis in the next 25 to 50 years.”
“I wouldn’t dismiss pride or something like that altogether,” he added. “I do think it’s part of what the city has to offer for people who live here and people who are thinking about relocating to here from elsewhere to from here to elsewhere.”
St. Louis Public Radio's Jo Mannies and Stephanie Lecci contributed information to this story. This story was informed in part by the Public Insight Network. To learn more about the network and how you can become a source, please click here.