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Economic boon or burden? Proposed stadium gets a public hearing

The plan to build a new football stadium in St. Louis continues to bring passion to the forefront. Rams fans and St. Louis residents took turns pleading their cases to the city’s Ways and Means Committee for three hours Saturday at an outdoor venue within the footprint of the proposed stadium. The aldermanic committee is considering a bill to help fund its construction.  

Rams fans lined up in the back held up blue letters spelling out “Keep the Rams in St. Louis.”  Season ticket holder Jill Bauer from Columbia, Illinois brought the letters.

“I have a lot invested in this team. I have a lot of money invested in this team. And I have a lot of heart and soul and time invested in this team. I want to keep them here,” Bauer explained.

Off to the side, St. Louis resident Mark Kustelski stood in the shadow of one of the empty cold storage buildings inside the stadium footprint. He held a sign that read “Veterans for a vote.”

“We should have the right to check a box yes or no. Whatever the city decides I’m fine but it’s the democratic process I’m really a fan of,” Kustelski said.

(In August A St. Louis judge ruled that city voters don't have a right to weigh in on the matter.)

Many St. Louis residents took issue with non-residents giving testimony since it's a city funding bill, but several St. Louis County residents defended their participation by stating that they work in the city and pay the earnings tax.

At least five of the eight members of the Ways and Means Committee have expressed skepticism over the stadium funding bill: Alderman Terry Kennedy, D-18th Ward, Chris Carter, D-27th Ward, Sam Moore, D-4th Ward, Antonio French, D-21st Ward and Scott Ogilvie, D-24th Ward.

After the hearing Saturday, Alderman Terry Kennedy said the public testimony gave him a sense of urgency and reaffirmed what he has been hearing from constituents.

“They are for the construction of something as long as it does not take away from the city’s ability to provide the services and to expand its services in the areas of the greatest needs,” Kennedy said. “There are portions of this city that have been neglected and where you’re seeing disinvestment. And so the question is raised: if you’re able to find money to build a stadium, we should be able to find money to address these social, economic and in some areas employment needs in our community.”

Aldermen Terry Kennedy, Antonio French, Chris Carter and Joe Vacarro listen to public testimony about the proposed stadium Sat. Nov. !4, 2015 at an outdoor venue in the stadium footprint.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
Aldermen Terry Kennedy, Antonio French, Chris Carter and Joe Vacarro listen to public testimony about the proposed stadium Sat. Nov. !4, 2015 at an outdoor venue in the stadium footprint.

Kennedy said the repeated calls for a public vote also reiterated something he supports, but Ways and Means chair Stephen Conway said a public vote was out of the picture because the NFL required funding to be in place before voters return to the polls.

Meanwhile, Alderman Antonio French reaffirmed that he wants a comprehensive crime plan before a vote on the stadium.

Most stadium backers who gave testimony were Rams fans, businessmen and construction industry representatives like Jeff Aboussie of the St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council, who spoke in favor of the construction jobs the stadium would create.

The majority of city residents who spoke called for a public vote.  Many, like Andrew Arkill, also questioned whether a stadium was the best use of tax dollars.

"This is about the financial impact of the residents of the city of St. Louis, who all of you  are elected to represent," said Arkill. "I don't hate sports. I don't hate football. I don't hate the Rams. I don't even hate the idea of building new stadiums. What I am concerned about is the public financing of these stadiums, especially when the financing package doesn't offer an attractive return on investment."

(See St. Louis Public Radio's previous reporting for a breakdown of the funding bill.)

A few city residents spoke in favor of the stadium as a means of spurring investment in the riverfront.

Joe Reagan of the St. Louis Regional Chamber spoke in favor of the stadium, saying it would increase economic development. Meanwhile Joseph Miller of the conservative Show Me Institute said its economic study indicates the existing Edward Jones Dome has not stimulated growth, and Saint Louis University economist Bonnie Wilson said the academic consensus is that professional sports teams do not have a positive impact and that they can in fact reduce the region's average net income.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.

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