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Economy & Business

Sales tax vote could decide shape and scope of Arch grounds improvements

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 22, 2013 - When voters in St. Louis and St. Louis County venture to the polls on April 2, they’ll cast a ballot for an initiative colloquially known as the “Arch tax.”

Behind that catchy shorthand is a complicated proposal that splits proceeds of a 3/16ths of one-cent sales tax increase in several directions. The tax boost – which both the St. Louis County Council and the St. Louis Board of Aldermen approved for the ballot last week – will provide funding for the Arch grounds, parks in St. Louis and St. Louis County, and the region’s network of trails.

While it is by no means unusual for a local government to raise taxes for parks or trails, the same can’t be said for the Arch part of the proposal. A spokesman for the National Parks Service told the Beacon last year that he did not know of any similar situation in which a local tax was used to improve a national park or monument.

The idea behind this proposal -- Proposition P -- is to use a steady and predictable source of public money to encourage private donations for an ambitious overhaul to the monuments grounds.

For some, a dedicated local sales tax could become a national model for upgrading national attractions. State Sen. John Lamping, a Ladue Republican who handled legislation authorizing the tax vote in the Missouri Senate, predicted last year that the proposal could spark a trend across the country.

“The worst way to do government is to send money to a centralized location and then go to that location and lobby for some money back. That’s our federal model and to some degree that’s our state model,” Lamping said. “I think you’re going to see this happen over and over again around the country where local communities say, ‘Look, this is usually a federal bill that is paid – but there’s no way the money’s coming. We’re going to take it up ourselves.’"

The proposal is sparking both excitement and skepticism. Boosters say the tax increase will go a long way toward enlivening a regional icon for residents and visitors alike. They also see an opportunity to provide more funding to local parks and the Great Rivers Greenway, which was set up in 2000 to create an interconnected system of greenways, parks and trails.

St. Louis Alderman Tom Villa – an 11th Ward Democrat with a lengthy tenure in city and state politics – sees the proposal as a culmination of the efforts of many “very, very good people in this city” who are “trying to move this region forward by putting their money where their mouth is.”

“We’ve got riverfront studies since the 1950s. The fact of the matter is: If we took all those riverfront reports and dropped them in the river today, we’d probably get the river level to rise so we could increase barge traffic,” said Villa earlier this month. “The region wins with this. Certainly St. Louis city wins with this.”

Not everyone supports Prop P. The initiative has already faced a hostile reception in St. Charles County, a jurisdiction that’s balked at times at entering into regional covenants.

Prop P also has some skeptics within St. Louis' city government, such as Alderman Scott Ogilvie, I-24th Ward. He argues that the CityArchRiver plan is too expensive, and has said that the sales tax proposal sets a bad precedent. 

“This is a local tax to pay for a national park, and there is no precedent for that in the United States,” said Ogilvie last year. “And it’s not clear to me that that’s the direction we should be going or we want to be going in. I think we need to take some time to have a conversation about that.

“It’s unfortunate that the goal is to get this bill passed as quickly as possible and kind of short-circuit the conversation on whether we should increase taxes locally to fund something we don’t own – which is the Jefferson National Memorial,” he added.

But even Ogilvie concedes mounting an opposition campaign may be tough. Already, a campaign committee – which, in perhaps a nod to the proposal’s complexity, is called “Citizens for Safe and Accessible Arch and Public Parks Initiative in Collaboration with Civic Progress Action Committee” – is raking in big money for an upcoming campaign. And there may not be the incentive for people to give money or time for a "vote no" campaign.

Sprucing up a landmark

Since it was topped off in 1965, the Gateway Arch has distinguished itself as one of the most recognizable landmarks in the country.

“People are generally supportive of the Arch because it is the thing that identifies the region,” said Alderwoman Phyllis Young, a 7th Ward Democrat who sponsored the legislation to place the tax increase on the city’s April ballot. “When you look at TV and see anything with St. Louis, it always shows the Arch. I think that people are proud of it. They think that people come down and bring visitors from wherever they’re coming down to see the Arch because it is symbolic of the entire region.”

Jeff Rainford, the chief of staff for Mayor Francis Slay, agrees. But he also contends the grounds around the Arch are outdated, which may provide a disincentive for people to stay around the monument.

"The Arch is St. Louis’ identity. It is part of our DNA. It is one of the most magnificent structures in the world," Rainford said. "Unfortunately, there’s two negatives associated with it. No.1 is the Arch grounds are tired and worn out. And No. 2, the Arch grounds are disconnected from the rest of the city."

Rainford wasn't the only person who noticed. Back in late 2007, then-Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne took a walking tour of the Arch grounds with Bryan Cave attorney Walter Metcalfe and former U.S. Sen. John Danforth. Metcalfe said that Kempthorne, a former Idaho governor, wasn't impressed

“He said at the time, this is the worst entrance to a national park in the United States,” Metcalfe said.

After the tour, Kempthorne went back to Metcalfe’s office with Danforth, Missouri Botanical Garden President Emeritus Peter Raven and then-Missouri History Museum President Bob Archibald. There, the group talked about the long history to get the Arch completed, including the various “false starts” in connecting the monument with the city and riverfront.

Slay, Rainford said, had asked Danforth to lead an effort to revitalize the riverfront near the Arch. Over time, Rainford said, Danforth “became frustrated with the bureaucracy of the Interior Department and the National Park Service.”

“And he eventually – and pretty famously – gave up,” Rainford said. “After that, the mayor and Walter met. And Walter picked up the mantle from Sen. Danforth. He’s was the driving force to get us to where we are today from that point forward.”

The plan that was eventually adopted includes a "lid" over the sunken Interstate-70 lanes that now separate the Arch from downtown. The pedestrian land bridge over I-70 will connect the Old Courthouse, Luther Ely Smith Square and the Arch grounds. About $47 million of federal and state funds went toward that aspect of the project, along with $10 million of private donations from a group known as the CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation.

Funds have also been made available to refurbish Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard, which runs along the often unpredictable Mississippi River.

There's been about $70 million of federal, state and local funding targeted for various parts of the project. But more sweeping changes are planned, including:

  • A new park extending over I-70 between Chestnut and Market Streets bridging the Arch grounds with the Old Courthouse. Other site improvements include pedestrian paths, additional seating, bikeway access, bus drop-offs, and garden rooms for hosting group visits and outdoor exhibitions.
  • Renovations to the Old Courthouse, including interior renovations and accessibility improvements around and within the facility.
  • A new glass entrance to the monument’s museum, as well as an extensive expansion and renovation of the institution.
  • Replacing a Metro-owned garage with a roughly four-acre park with a lawn for a wide range of events. It will also house a garden with a raised walkway featuring views of Eads Bridge and the Mississippi River. Washington Avenue will end at Memorial Drive, allowing the park to expand directly to Eads Bridge and Laclede’s Landing.
  • Making further improvements to Leonor K. Sullivan Blvd., with the idea of making the riverfront a destination for residents and tourists alike.

Picking up the tab

Of course, change isn’t free. Or, for that matter, cheap.

Taking into account private funds, existing public money and the proposed sales tax increase, CityArchRiver spokesman Ryan McClure said the Missouri portion of the project is expected to cost around $380 million.

The federal government, Metcalfe said, was "a different being" when the latest effort started back before the economic collapse of 2008.

"There was earmarking. And there was not quite the (concern with) the national debt that we have today," Metcalfe said. "Although the economy had cratered or was in the process of cratering, there was no real sense of how bad it would be."

Initially, Metcalfe estimated that a third of the project would be paid for private money. The feds would pick up two thirds of the cost, with federal highway money chipping a third and the National Parks Service contributing the other third "to do the public realm infrastructure -- the trails, the irrigation, the refreshment of the park to bring it into the 21st century."

Eventually, Rainford said various stakeholders in the project – including the mayor, CityArchRiver and business leaders – concluded that they couldn't rely on the federal government for funding.

Rainford said he had a conversation with Metcalfe “when we were getting frustrated about the slowness of the federal government to respond financially.” And he told him proponents would have to give voters an opportunity “to have a say on a sales tax and let them decide whether this is important enough to be funded or not. Because it sure doesn’t look like the federal government is going to do it.’

“So independently, a few of us said, ‘Listen, this is a national monument, but this is really St. Louis’ monument.’ This is our identity. We live here. We have the most at stake here,” Rainford said. “A few of us independently came up with the idea that said ‘if we value this, we can’t figure out how the federal government (does) the public side of it, we have to.’”

Added Metcalfe: "The choice was: Do we stop or do we find out a way to do this?"

"As we went forward," added Metcalfe, the group came to "the conclusion that we can wait for the federal government again -- which means we may get back to this in the year 2050 -- or we can take the momentum we have and the energy we have and the number of people who have coalesced around this... and just say 'let's take it in our own hands.'"

Susan Trautman, the executive director of Great Rivers Greenway, said her organization was approached by CityArchRiver and various business leaders in the fall of 2011 to see if GRG would be interested in facilitating funds for the Arch grounds.

At that time, Trautman said, Great Rivers Greenway was also grappling with its own funding issues. And St. Louis County policymakers were sparring over potentially steep cuts to the county's park system.

"We knew that we would eventually have to go out to the voters," Trautman said. "At the same time, we were aware that the issues in St. Louis County were becoming very grave with the county parks system. And the need across the region was so great when it comes to parks, maintenance and everything. So basically we said, ‘We’re happy to help, but we have to include everyone.’

"And they were great about it," she added. "They said, ‘Of course, we’ll do that.’"

To the legislature

The result was an amendment attached in 2012 to a Missouri House bill authorizing a vote on a library tax in southeast Missouri. That measure permitted the St. Louis Board of Aldermen and the county councils in St. Louis County and St. Charles County to put a 3/16th of 1 percent sales tax increase on the ballot.

The bill ultimately passed the Missouri legislature, thanks to efforts to educate both urban and rural lawmakers.

"We didn't go into this dumbly," said Metcalfe, noting that Civic Progress and organized labor played a role in the legislative process. "We briefed 40 or 50 legislators on the project to show them -- especially the outstate people who naturally say 'why should we be interested in this?' We take them through the logic of it and what this signature asset means for the entire state. And they got it," he added. "Of course, it's easy when they're saying 'let the voters decide.' Which was our point, but it's never quite that easy."

About 60 percent of the proceeds would be directed to Great Rivers Greenway to develop regional parks and trails and to administer the public funds for the CityArchRiver project. The other 40 percent would go to local parks. If passed by all three counties, the plan could raise about $38 million a year. If approved by only St. Louis County and St. Louis voters, it would raise about $31 million a year.

"We started doing numbers, basically trying to figure out how much did we need to make sure we never [in our generation] go back and ask for more," Trautman said. "And that’s how we got to the 3/16ths. It’s enough to make St. Louis County whole. It’s enough to make [Great Rivers Greenway] whole and help us build out. It fills the gap on the public side for the Arch grounds."

"We knew we needed at least $6 or $6.5 million to cover the gap for St. Louis County parks," Trautman said. "And we were seeking to be able to bond about $100 million for the Arch ground. And for [GRG], it doubles our income. It sort of helps us stay on track."

Trautman said the breakdown of Prop P's funds "goes to back to calculating what the need is."

Most of the Arch work funded with the sales tax will go toward walkways, lighting and connecting trails.

"There were a couple of issues here. Obviously, there was an issue in terms of how you are able to fund the improvements and the vision that the design folks have for the new Gateway Arch," said Tom Irwin, executive director of Civic Progress, an organization of leading local business executives. "But also equally important was the fact that Great Rivers Greenway – which has been linking various parks, bikeways, road paths, trails and so on – that they also had a substantial amount of need. So the issue was how do you marry these two?" 

Both Rainford and Metcalfe say that a steady public revenue stream would encourage private donors to pay for the rest of the project. CityArchRiver's goal is to raise $250 million in private donations, with a big chunk going toward a $157 million overhaul of the Arch's museum.

"There is going to be an enormous amount of private money in this thing," Rainford said. "And I think that it's fair for people who are going to put private money in to know that the (residents) of St. Louis want this project and they've got some skin in the game too."

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