You don’t have to try that hard to get St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay to express effusive support for a new football stadium on his city’s riverfront.
With the St. Louis Rams potentially bolting to the Los Angeles area, Slay joined with Gov. Jay Nixon and numerous labor unions in backing the roughly $1 billion stadium. For the Democratic mayor, the project would not only provide steady work for thousands of people – it would revitalize a rather drab part of St. Louis’ riverfront.
“I for one would like to see the stadium built. I think it’s an exciting opportunity for us,” said Slay last week. “It’s a huge investment in an area that’s seen a lot of disinvestment and really is an embarrassment on our riverfront right now. We can take it and make into something and draw in over $400 million of private investment into our city and keep an NFL team in St. Louis.”
But that type of benign statement is the source of some legal controversy.
The Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority is suing St. Louis over an ordinance requiring a public vote to publicly finance sports stadiums. And despite Slay’s assurances that his administration will “vigorously defend” the ordinance, there’s some skepticism that will actually happen. It’s why a St. Louis University law professor crafted a motion to intervene in the high-stakes lawsuit.
“What the interveners are alleging is that because of the mayor’s public statements in favor of the stadium, that to get a full hearing on whether the ordinance from 2002 should be enforced, that the interveners should have their say,” said John Ammann, the supervisor of SLU’s Legal Clinic. “The voters should have their say.”
Mad as heck
One of the potential interveners is Jeanette Mott Oxford, executive director of Empower Missouri and one of the architects behind the ordinance in question.
The measure had relatively inauspicious beginnings: When Oxford was driving home in 2001, she heard a news report about how the St. Louis Cardinals’ new stadium would cost hundreds of millions of dollars in public money. It was news that threw the traditionally good-natured St. Louis activist into a bit of a fury.
“I was outraged,” said Oxford, who served four terms in the Missouri House. “When I heard it on the radio, I started yelling at the radio and waving my arms around and stuff.”
Oxford eventually channeled her displeasure into action. She joined others in successfully pushing for an ordinance in St. Louis requiring a public vote to public finance sports stadiums. It states that a public hearing and a public vote must occur “before the City can act, by ordinance or otherwise, to provide financial assistance to the development of a professional sports facility.” (Oxford later helped pass a similar charter amendment in St. Louis County.)
Oxford said her allies “drafted an ordinance that was as thorough as it could be about every possible way.” “Financial assistance” is defined in the ordinance like this:
“Any City assistance of value, direct or indirect, whether or not channeled through an intermediary entity, including, but not limited to, tax reduction, exemption, credit, or guarantee against or deferral of increase; dedication of tax or other revenues; tax increment financing; issuance, authorization, or guarantee of bonds; purchase or procurement of land or site preparation; loans or loan guarantees; sale or donation or loan of any City resource or service; deferral, payment, assumption or guarantee of obligations, and all other forms of assistance of value.”
“We wanted to shut down all avenues to getting public money for this project unless there was a public hearing and a public vote,” Oxford said. “So we weren’t saying we would never let this happen. But you need to make a case for it. You know? And it needs to be enough to convince people to vote for it before tax dollars would go for such a ludicrous thing.”
But backers of the new stadium don’t believe the ordinance applies in this situation. As currently proposed, the facility’s public financing would come about through “extending” local and state bonds paying for the Edward Jones Dome. Both Nixon and stadium task force guru Dave Peacock contend that arrangement precludes the need for a public vote. (The Regional Sports Authority is also arguing, among other things, that the ordinance is unconstitutional.)
“Our financing model relies on a balance of private investment, from the St. Louis Rams and the National Football League, as well as revenue sources that have been approved by the voters,” Peacock said in a statement earlier this year. “A public vote is not required.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Oxford doesn’t buy that contention – adding that “it’s a totally bogus argument in that this is not an extension of bonds.”
“It would be new debt, and we believe therefore it needs to be submitted to a citywide,” said Oxford, adding stadium backers are refinancing the Jones Dome to pay for the new stadium. “They’re calling it an extension to try to get it grandfathered in under the previous agreement. But that’s not what it really is from a legal standpoint.”
Slay on the spot
Slay put out a statement after the lawsuit was filed indicating that city Counselor Winston Calvert “will vigorously defend the validity of our ordinance.” But Oxford said she doesn't really believe that declaration.
“I don’t believe that the city is anxious to aggressively stand up to the ordinance in the lawsuit,” Oxford said. “And that is based on my previous experience in the city. Which is they did everything they could to kowtow to sports teams about tax dollars.”
Oxford isn’t alone. Alderman Chris Carter, D-27th Ward, said he wants to see the Rams stay in St. Louis – but wants city voters to decide on the public financing. And when asked if he trusts Slay to defend the ordinance, he flatly said “no.”
“I’m pretty sure that he doesn’t want to be known as the mayor that lost a major NFL team in the city and a major development that could have possibly happened,” Carter said. “I think anytime when we are spending tax dollars that voters should get the right to voice how they feel on these projects.”
For his part, Slay said last week that he hasn’t seen Ammann's motion to intervene. But he added: “I believe very strongly that we should, as a community, do what we can – within the bounds of the law and things that are proper – to keep the Rams here in St. Louis and a build a [new stadium] with a huge private investment.
“We’re looking at drawing a huge investment, and maintaining St. Louis as a NFL city,” Slay said. “And everything that comes with: image, quality of life, tax revenues, jobs. … And in that sense, I’m someone who is going to be inclined to do what we can to get this thing done. But of course, in all cases, make sure we follow the law and do it properly.”
Slay’s philosophical approach is markedly different from St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger. The Democratic official has said that even if a public vote on the stadium isn’t required, it should happen anyway. It’s the type of stance that may have contributed to the county being taken out of publicly funding the new stadium.
Slay hasn’t exactly emulated Stenger’s viewpoint. Last week, he echoed his former chief of staff Jeff Rainford’s sentiments that it could be difficult to go forth with a public vote with the NFL’s timeline to present a plan.
"We’ve got a tight timeline here as well. And so, all those things go into consideration into what we need to be doing," Slay said. "As I said, there will be no new taxes on the general public without a vote of the people. ... Any new taxes or fees that will based on the plan that I understand, if there’s going to be some new taxes or fees, it’s only going to be relative to those individuals that are part of the game experience. People who are going to the game, people are coming down in their parking in the garages and going to the game."
Alderman Jack Coatar backs the stadium plan, which he says will be an economic boon to his ward that encompasses downtown. Unlike Carter or Oxford, the 7th Ward alderman said he trusts Slay’s administration “to do the right thing.”
And if the lawsuit does lead to a citywide referendum, Coatar said there’s an excellent chance voters will approve any stadium plan.
“Now there are some who are opposed and they’re opposed to public financing of any kind for sports facilities," said Coatar, who recently won election. "But the vast majority of the people I talk to seem to want the stadium.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.