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When it comes to St. Louis Centre, Slay and Nixon agree

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 2, 2010 - Hailed in 1985 as downtown St. Louis' savior, St. Louis Centre has devolved into a giant four-block, four-story, mostly vacant urban albatross that city and state officials agree was probably a mistake.

Its looming presence next to the city's chief convention center has likely cost St. Louis convention business, said St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission President Kitty Ratcliffe. "It does not leave a pretty good impression of our community."

But today, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay portrayed the complex's planned conversion -- into a hotel, apartments, retail stores and a parking garage -- as a rare opportunity for a rebirth of the heart of downtown.

It's also just the sort of joint state-city venture to rekindle a fraying friendship between two Democrats who haven't agreed on much lately.

"Redeveloping and revitalizing downtown St. Louis always have been -- and always will be -- a top priority for the state," Nixon said during this morning's news conference on the ground floor of the former Dillard's department store (now called the Laurel), which once had been the Centre's northern anchor.

"St. Louis is a vital pillar of Missouri's economy, and a vibrant downtown is critical for a vibrant St. Louis," the governor continued. "Today, we're celebrating the historic, and monumental, growth we can accomplish when public and private partners work together."

The governor praised Slay and his staff for continuing to push for retooling the Centre, despite the economic downturn.

For his part, Slay lauded Nixon for stepping up with $89 million in state tax incentives to attract the private investment for the $352 million project.

"By the end of this summer, we expect to have over half a billion dollars in construction going on in downtown," the mayor said, calling such efforts "a visible sign that we believe in downtown."

Some work is already underway, with jack hammers at times drowning out the officials at the news conference.

The huge project will target the Laurel (the former Dillard's Department Store at 601 Washington); Park Pacific Apartments (the former Union Pacific Railroad building at 210 N. 13th St.); 600 Washington (formerly One City Centre, at 515 N. 6th St.); and St. Louis Centre.

The financing includes close to $80 million in federal tax credits, a $45 million loan insured by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and several banks, including Bank of America, U.S. Bank and Great Southern Bank.

City redevelopment chief Barbara Geisman noted in an interview that St. Louis Centre was the largest of a string of urban malls constructed in the 1980s around the country. "History has demonstrated that these multi-story enclosed malls don't work," she said.

Bob Clark, chief executive of Clayco -- the architect, builder and developer for much of the project -- said shoppers want to be able to walk straight into a store from the street. They don't want to climb stairs and take escalators.

Clark, who expects to be on-site to oversee much of the work personally, believes that the new plans provide the needed parking space for existing downtown tenants -- "This isn't New York, where people don't have cars," he said -- and offer an economic boost in the heart of the city.

The timing for construction also could help boost the city's chances in its quest to host the Democratic presidential convention in 2012, should the city make the initial cut later this month, Ratcliffe said.

Work on the exterior of the Centre's mid-section -- which will be converted into a parking garage and ground floor retail space -- is slated for completion by the end of this year.

Transforming the Laurel into an Embassy Suites hotel, 200-plus apartments and retail space should be well underway next year.

The upshot, said Ratcliffe, is the Democratic officials checking out the city's convention district will see a lot of construction that should be completed by the summer of 2012.

Overall, in wooing convention business, the massive project "is going to help us tremendously," Ratcliffe said.

And there's definitely the matter of aesthetics.

Nixon noted that he'd been around for the Centre's 1985 jubilant grand opening -- sporting a blue suit, he recalled. The governor now concedes that the complex improperly blocks conventioneers' views of the Mississippi River and the Gateway Arch.

Removing the Centre's huge skywalk over Washington Avenue will let in light and improve "the sight lines," the governor said, offering "accessibility to the eye" so that visitors can see St. Louis' "unbelievable asset of the Arch and the river."

While touting their mutual interest in rejuvenating downtown St. Louis, Nixon and Slay played down any talk of enduring tensions.

"The mayor and I work in an intense world," the governor said, falling back on his favorite sports analogies. "We work best when there's a clock and a score."

What's most important, said Nixon, is that the two "trust each other, work with each other."

Slay, for his part, emphasized that his administration is committed to "working with the state every chance we get."

"There will be disagreements in the future," the mayor said. Slay then offered a pragmatic explanation: "We have different constituencies."

That said, he added, "I consider Jay a friend."

For one thing, when it comes to the city's convention district, Slay agrees about the need for better sight lines.

Oh -- he and Nixon also both want that Democratic convention.

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