St. Louis stadium plan clears big obstacle — other hurdles remain
Updated 11:15 Friday -- Plans for a $1 billion riverfront stadium cleared a major hurdle Thursday when a financing proposal passed out of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen’s Ways and Means Committee. And the measure passed with a big assist from one of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay’s biggest detractors. The full board will consider this bill next week.
Among other things, the legislation sponsored by Alderman Tammika Hubbard, D-5th Ward, would have city general revenue dollars pay off about $70 million worth of bonds. It would also direct about two-thirds of the event-related taxes toward paying off $80 million worth of bonds backed by the state’s credit rating. (That’s a change from the initial financing agreement, which used a recently signed naming rights deal as collateral to get about $75 million worth of bonds.)
Still, Hubbard’s bill faced a tough reception. At least five of the Ways and Means Committee's eight members had expressed trepidation about publicly funding stadiums — especially without a public vote. And Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward, threatened to gum up the works on the legislation unless he got Slay’s office to develop a “comprehensive plan” to combat crime.
But French ending up joining six other aldermen in voting for the plan on Thursday. Not only did he express optimism about negotiations with the mayor’s office on crime, but he was able to attach a multi-faceted minority inclusion proposal to the legislation. (A St. Louis American story details the plan, which gained support from Jeff Aboussie of the St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council.)
“I feel like we’ve done enough progress that I can support this on the committee level,” French said. “But I still think we need to do some due diligence before final passage at the full board… [We need to] make sure that we protect the city’s financial interests.”
Among the aldermen who voted for the bill in committee were French, Steve Conway, D-8th Ward, Sam Moore, D-4th Ward, Joe Vaccaro, D-23rd Ward, Beth Murphy, D-13th Ward and St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed.
Reed’s vote is especially important, because he will need to vote in favor of the final plan when it goes before the three-person Board of Estimate and Apportionment. The other members of that panel are divided: Slay is in favor of the proposal, while St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green is currently opposed it.
“I think we’ve come to our best solution when it’s a blended solution,” Reed said. “We need all voices to be heard so that we can blend those things together to try and come up with something that would best represent the wishes and the things of the city of St. Louis.”
Dave Peacock, one of the key engineers of the $1 billion stadium, said he was heartened by the Ways and Means Committee’s decision. He said it was “cool” to see the legislative process play out.
“There’s obviously a lot more to do,” Peacock said. “This is a proud day for me as an American to see this process play out in such a genuine way. So you get me a little emotional, but it was inspiring.”
The final product didn’t exactly inspire at least two members of the committee —Aldermen Scott Ogilvie, D-24th Ward, and Chris Carter, D-27th Ward.
Ogilvie in particular said he was “appalled” that backers of the stadium plan short-circuited efforts to put any funding package to a public vote. A judge struck down an ordinance requiring a public vote to fund stadiums. And Alderman Megan Green’s bill to require a referendum on the financing plan died in committee.
“What I’ve seen is just an utter disdain, I think, for a legally enacted law by residents of St. Louis, an utter disdain for the will of the people,” Ogilvie said. “And I think it’s appalling. It has been an entirely reasonable expectation for the citizens of St. Louis to get to weigh in on 35 years of debt and debt payments for a want – something I don’t think anybody in this room can characterize as a need.”
Carter said that, while he was glad a minority inclusion plan was incorporated into the bill, he was still surprised that some stadium skeptics came out in favor of the measure.
“It wouldn’t have changed my mind,” said Carter, referring to the minority participation plan. “I just think that it’s going to be tough to enforce it. It’s going to be tough to monitor it. And to monitor it effectively and make sure that those numbers are hit and that minorities and women actually get their fair share of this.”
Some aldermen who weren’t members of the Ways and Means Committee leveled especially harsh criticism at their colleagues. For instance: Alderman Christine Ingrassia, D-6th Ward, Tweeted: “Happy to hear Ald. French has figured out how 2 solve crime in our city in exchange 4 a vote on the stadium. Can't wait for a crime free city.”
And Green Tweeted out “the deal cutting, bribery, and [corruption] at City Hall will never cease to amaze me,” comments that elicited sharp rejoinders from Aldermen Lyda Krewson, D-28th Ward, and Alderman Stephen Conway, D-8th Ward.
In any case, Hubbard’s bill will now go to the full Board of Aldermen. On Friday, the aldermen took care of some procedural issues, to it not be considered until a “resumed session” Dec. 15 and 18.
And even after it passes the Board of Aldermen and the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, the measure could still face some city obstacles from Comptroller Green. Like other opponents of the plan, Green has expressed deep concern that the revenues from the stadium won't be enough to pay off the facility's costs.
She told the St. Louis American that she still isn’t sold on the plan, which is notable since her signature is required in some of the documents within the financing proposal.
St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones said Green’s role in the process isn’t insignificant. Her father, Virvus Jones, served as comptroller, and sparked legal tussles when he refused to sign onto certain agreements.
“If the comptroller is very committed to making sure that it doesn’t go through, that’s one of the tools that she can use,” Jones said. “The documents also require my signature as the custodian of all funds for the city. And that’s something that I can do as well. And if we don’t sign, then it’s possible we’re opening ourselves up for a lawsuit to make us sign the documents. This happened 20 or so years ago when my father was comptroller and was against the original stadium deal.”
Eyes on the NFL
The critical committee hearing came a few weeks before NFL owners will decide whether the St. Louis Rams can bolt to the Los Angeles area. When asked if a nailed-down financing plan could make it harder for Rams owner Stan Kroenke to persuade 24 owners to approve an LA relocation, Peacock replied: “I don’t know.”
“I do have confidence after interacting with some owners that they see that there is a legitimate effort here,” Peacock said. “And I have heard from some that feel it’s a good plan. Look, it’s like anything else. Just like the aldermen had to go through. They’ve got to use their judgment in assessing all the alternatives, everything that’s in front of them and make a decision.
“So [neither] today nor the final aldermen vote is going to be the last of people making a decision on this matter,” he added. “And that’s what they’ll have to face in January.”
There are other potential complications for the stadium plan even if owners stymie Kroenke’s relocation plans. The NFL’s Eric Grubman told 101 ESPN’s Bernie Miklasz on Wednesday that Kroenke is under no obligation to sign onto the stadium proposal – which he claimed was lacking in a number of areas.
And that possibility creates all sorts of risk when it comes to the state funding for the project. Since the financing project requires a commitment from a team before it gets executed, it’s possible that the legislature could block Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration from issuing bonds for the stadium by fiat when it comes back in session this year. So far, at least 21 senators and 120 representatives have signed onto letters opposing an state funding for the project without a statewide or legislative vote.
(And even if the bonds are issued without a legislative or statewide vote, lawmakers have also threatened to not appropriate money to pay off the debt.)
That type of state legislative caught the attention of Ogilvie, especially since the financing plan possesses a clause where the state would shell out money in the event that event day tax revenues aren't high enough to pay off debt.
"I think the idea that we are instructing the General Assembly to make appropriations on an unknown amount in the future for an agreement that they have not agreed to is pure fantasy," said Ogilvie. "And we should recognize that this is nothing more than fantasy. And that they’re not going to do it. We’re not looking at reality."
When asked if he was fearful the Missouri General Assembly could complicate the state’s portion of the stadium funding, Peacock replied: “I don’t worry about what I don’t control and I don’t worry about what’s going to happen.”
“We’ve got to put forth the deal that make sense for our region and that’s also enticing enough for an NFL club,” Peacock said. “I think what we’ve got on the table is good. And at the end of the day, we encourage the Rams to jump on board and try to invest in our city and help make St. Louis better.”