St. Louis aldermen approve stadium funding plan -- now it's the NFL's turn to act

Dec 18, 2015

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen gave its blessing to a measure aimed at keeping the St. Louis Rams in town.

Now, it’s up to the NFL’s owners to see if this potentially expensive gambit paid off.

“The important thing is that we are in the game,” said Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed. “We are now in a position where we have to be considered. If we decided not to pass this bill so that we wouldn’t even be considered in January, I think that would have been a bad position for the city to be in.”

The board gave final approval on Friday to a bill spelling out St. Louis’ share of the roughly $1.1 billion stadium. Passage was never really in doubt, especially after the bill received a favorable reception in committee and during initial approval.

In essence, the bill would use city general revenue dollars and event-related taxes to help pay for the proposed riverfront stadium:

  • City general revenue dollars would go toward paying off about $70 million worth of bonds over a 35-year-period. The city would pay between $4.5 million and $8.8 million a year in debt service through 2051, which amounts to around $233 million over a 35-year period. (That total shakes out to around $103 million in "net present value," which accounts for risk, inflation and interest rates. It also takes into account paying off the Edward Jones Dome.)
  • Roughly $75 million worth of bonds would be paid off over that same period with an array of event-related taxes and a NFL team’s rent. Two big changes to the bill include the fact that the city’s ticket tax will go to the team’s owner. In exchange, the NFL could provide another $100 million for stadium construction and the NFL team would have to make rent payments of about $1.5 million. (More on that later.)
  • The rest of the funding for the stadium is slated to come from the NFL (about $300 million), an NFL owner (about $250 million), personal seat licenses (nearly $160.4 million), state general revenue ($151 million) and state tax credits (more than $88 million).

Stadium backers contend that the project would put thousands of people to work, clean up a drab portion of the city’s riverfront and allow St. Louis to maintain the prestige of remaining an NFL city. A contingent of the board’s Aldermanic Black Caucus came to support the legislation after a multi-faceted minority inclusion plan was amended onto the bill.

“This is something that we should definitely fight for,” said Alderman Tammika Hubbard, the 5th Ward Democrat who sponsored the legislation. “We don’t know what may really happen with it. But I’ll stand before you saying that as the sponsor of the bill, I feel that we have made some good decisions to put us in a favorable consideration to move forward.”

Mayor Francis Slay will sign the measure on Monday.

In a statement, Gov. Jay Nixon thanked the board for its vote to "help secure St. Louis’s position as a proud NFL city now and for years to come," calling it "another step toward keeping the Rams in St. Louis, transforming the north riverfront with private investment, and creating jobs – without raising taxes on Missourians." 

Alderman Megan Green, D-15th Ward, contended that there were better ways for the city to spend tax dollars than a new stadium.
Credit File photo I St. Louis Public Radio

But detractors pointed to a number of economic studies questioning whether stadiums bring about economic growth. For instance: After declaring that she didn’t think “it’s the end of the world if we lose a football team,” Alderman Megan Green, D-15th Ward, said that it would make more sense to redevelop St. Louis’ riverfront with housing, businesses, mixed-use development -- and even an aquarium.

“We know that this NFL money won’t be here to do a billion dollars of investment across the city,” Green said. “But we do have $150 million in terms of naming rights which is going into this from a private business. What if we tried to leverage businesses like that to do some matching funds to actually do some projects that will benefit people in ward all across this city? That’s the kind of thing that we need to be looking for.”

And a number of aldermen expressed dismay that stadium supporters short-circuited efforts to have the stadium funding plan put up for a public vote – and whether the plan was worth the public cost. 

“Saying no isn’t saying no to everything,” said Alderman Scott Ogilvie, D-24th Ward. “Saying no is saying yes to a city with more money to do other things 10 or 15 years down the road. It’s not no no no. It’s yes to all the other things we need to do. Yes to taking care of our other responsibilities. Yes to paying off debts we’ve already created. Yes to having the financial flexibility to do something important five, 10 or 15 years down the road.”

In a rare appearance before the Board of Aldermen, St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green reiterated that she didn’t think plan was fiscally sound. Among other things, she has been critical of how the city’s cost in paying for the stadium will outpace how much revenue it brings in.

“There is no guaranteed minimum revenues that we received from the project in order to pay … on the bonds that we’re going to be asked to issue,” Green said. “Therefore as comptroller, I said that the board bill before you today is not fiscally responsible.”

Uncertain future

It should be strenuously emphasized that the passage of the financing plan does not guarantee that riverfront stadium ever gets built. 

St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green made a rare appearance on Friday before the Board of Aldermen. She says the bill is not fiscally responsible.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

For one thing, NFL owners could approve St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s likely relocation request in mid-January. Kroenke would have to fend off a competing proposal from the owners of the San Diego Chargers and the Oakland Raiders, who are seeking to build a stadium of their own in Carson, Calif.

And even if Kroenke’s bid to move is rejected, the billionaire businessman is under no obligation to sign onto the new stadium. And the NFL may not pony up the $300 million that’s required to build the stadium, as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell made abundantly clear in a letter obtained by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“He’s been very plain with us,” said Alderman Sharon Tyus, D-1st Ward, referring to Kroenke. “I do not want to be here. I want to go to California. I don’t even really want your money. Keep throwing it at me. You know, we’re like at the stripper clubs or something and we’re making it rain. We making it rain! And the stripper is throwing the money back at us and saying ‘We don’t want it!’”

Even if those substantial hurdles are cleared, there are other potential barriers: Green could withhold her signature on critical aspects of the financing plan.

“I’ve been giving careful thought all along,” Green said. “And because my name is on there to sign, I will continue to give careful thought. But in terms of timing, there is a negotiation process that I may or may not be involved in. And so I will have to see what happens in that in between time before I can answer you as to what I will do.”

And even more barriers could spring up during that “in between” time. For instance, the Missouri General Assembly could pass legislation that stymies Gov. Jay Nixon from issuing state bonds for the project without a statewide or public vote. And even if those bonds are issued and bought up, lawmakers have pledged not to appropriate money to pay off the stadium debt – which could spark protracted and expensive litigation.

“If you understand the mentality of the Missouri General Assembly – and I’m not so sure anyone does, I think I understand it a little – you’ve got huge Republican majorities in both houses,” said Alderman Tom Villa, whose nearly-two decade long stint in the Missouri House included a turn as the chamber’s majority leader. “And they’ve already told [Nixon] they’re not going to fund it.”

Alderman Jack Coatar, D-7th Ward, is a cosponsor of the stadium financing bill.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

Alderman Jack Coatar, D-7th Ward, acknowledged during debate that the financing plan is by no means a guarantee for the new stadium. But he added that going forward with a plan that requires the NFL to pony up $300 million shows that league’s “management and Stan Kroenke that we’re not going to be pushed around.” 

“There’s a lot of ifs,” Coatar said. “We can’t guarantee any money from the NFL. We can’t guarantee any money from an NFL team owner. And I’ve been clear on that since the beginning – and I think most of the people pushing this project have been clear on that. All we can do is guarantee what our position is in this deal. And our position is we’ll put up $150 million in an effort to keep this town an NFL city.”

“The rest of it’s out of our hands,” he added. “The rest of it’s up to 32 league billionaires. It’s not up to Roger Goodell. It’s up to the owners of the NFL teams who get a vote on this matter.”

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Follow Jason Rosenbaum on Twitter: @jrosenbaum