On the Trail: Aldermen gearing up for 'lively' debate to fund riverfront stadium
Members of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen may soon get a chance to do something that’s eluded lawmakers in Jefferson City: Vote on funding a proposed football stadium on the city’s riverfront.
While Gov. Jay Nixon's administration may very well issue state bonds for the project without legislative or statewide approval, city aldermen are expected to take up legislation soon that would authorize the city’s funding share of the roughly $1 billion project.
Several aldermen and a spokeswoman for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay say that bill could be introduced later this week.
The stadium-financing plan, as proposed, would include hundreds of millions of dollars worth of state and local funds. Much of that money could come from “extending” bonds paying off the Edward Jones Dome.
The specific details of the city’s financing plan haven’t been publicly released yet. Currently, the city contributes about $6 million each year to pay off the cost of the Edward Jones Dome. City budget director Paul Payne said in an e-mail earlier this year that a combination of hotel, restaurant and tourism related taxes are received into general revenue to collectively offset the debt costs of the Dome.
Any legislation will come after the demise of a voter-approved ordinance requiring a public vote to publicly finance stadiums. And St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed said that development could influence the tone and flow of the debate ahead.
“The board is certainly divided on it. There are a fair number of members of the Board of Aldermen who would liked to have seen it go to a vote. And they believe in the ordinance that was passed, including myself. I think it should have gone for a vote,” Reed said. “I have not polled the members of the Board of Aldermen to see how they would vote on the bill that will be introduced. But I think there will be some lively debate on it.”
One big factor in how debate proceeds, Reed said, is whether there’s a firm commitment from the St. Louis Rams to stay in the Gateway City. Rams owner Stan Kroenke has made no such assurances, and his desire to build a lavish stadium in Inglewood, Calif., is a pretty big hint that he wants to move his team.
Reed said aldermen may be “hard-pressed to build a stadium and commit the amount of resources that would be required to build the stadium” if the Rams were definitely bolting. But he added the “calculus” could change if either Kroneke changes his mind or his fellow owners quash his potential move.
“Because some of the people that would be on the fence, they would want to make sure they keep St. Louis a NFL city,” Reed said. “And that’s the thing. A lot of people even if you don’t go to the games, they want to make sure that St. Louis remains a NFL city.”
It should be noted that Slay told St. Louis Public Radio earlier this year that this “is not going to be a situation like last time where a stadium is built without a team.”
“The only way a stadium would be built is if there’s a team and there is at least a $400 to $450 million private investment by the NFL and the ownership group,” Slay said in late April. “That’s what we’re looking at. We’re looking at drawing a huge investment here, maintain St. Louis as a NFL city and everything that comes with it.”
Counting to 15
Like Reed, this reporter hasn’t asked every Board of Aldermen member his or her opinion on spending city funds to pay for the proposed stadium. At least 15 aldermen will have to vote "yes" to get the measure to Slay’s desk.
But after talking with a few aldermen last Friday, it's clear that opinions on the proposed stadium are quite divergent.
Alderman Tammika Hubbard is an enthusiastic supporter of the stadium plan. Much of the stadium will be built within Hubbard’s 5th Ward, which is close to downtown St. Louis.
“I think that it has some broad support,” said Hubbard, who added that she plans to sponsor the funding plan through the Board of Aldermen. “I think it would be huge for a community that’s experienced 60 years of disinvestment. There will be a tremendous amount of construction jobs. It would just be a good thing for the city. We’re a football town.”
Another alderman who is receptive to the stadium proposal is Alderman Jack Coatar, whose 7th Ward takes in most of downtown. He said he would make his final decision after reviewing the specific financial details of the proposal.
“I do expect a lively debate. And I think it’s a debate we should have,” said Coatar, who added it was possible to find 15 votes to get a stadium financing package passed. “Because this is something that’s being done more and more across the country where these … billionaire team owners are holding people hostage and spending public money on something they probably could afford. But do we want to be the ones that let our football team go just to make a righteous stand? I don’t know.”
One alderman who has a dimmer view of the situation is Chris Carter. The 27th Ward Democrat isn’t happy city voters won’t have a say in funding the stadium – and also said it’s not fair that St. Louis County won’t be contributing to the project.
But most importantly, Carter said the entire debate may not matter that much if Kroenke is intent on moving the Rams and secures enough support to follow through.
“I believe that we are waiting on a vote from the other owners to see what’s going to happen with the Rams and our fate here in our city,” Carter said. “And I just don’t think it’s going to pan out the way that we are hoping. We shouldn’t waste money on an owner who doesn’t want his team here.”
Elephants in the room
The impending aldermanic debate comes amid a widening divide between Nixon and lawmakers regarding state funding for the stadium. A number of lawmakers – including House Budget Committee vice chairman Scott Fitzpatrick – have signaled they won’t support appropriating state money to pay off bonds for the stadium if they aren’t approved first by a legislative or statewide vote.
And with more than 21 senators making a similar pledge earlier this month, Fitzpatrick said it’s going to be “an uphill climb” to get legislators to pay off bonds if Nixon issues them by fiat.
“If you get two or three or four senators that are against something strong enough, it’s not going to happen,” said Fitzpatrick on a recent edition of the Politically Speaking podcast. “When you have 21, which is more than half obviously, just by simple math it’s not going to happen. But even if some of them change their mind, the opposition of that many senators is not going to go away, and it’s not going to be something that can be overcome in my opinion.”
Opinions differ about whether appropriating money to pay off the stadium bonds will hurt the state’s AAA bond rating. When asked about that prospect, Fitzpatrick said “that would obviously be up to the rating agencies.”
“I think the decision that I would make in that case would be cognizant of the fact that it could have a negative impact on the state’s credit rating. That would be extremely unfortunate,” Fitzpatrick said. “But at the end of the day, ensuring that the process remains true and the way it should be is, I think, more important to me than losing one of the ‘As’ off our credit rating. I hope it doesn’t come to that. But if it does, that’s the situation we might find ourselves in.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.