The leaders of St. Louis and St. Louis County are backing a plan that would steer millions of dollars to spruce up the America’s Center Convention Complex in downtown St. Louis.
It’s a bid that will be a sign of whether the region’s legislators want to invest more money to attract lucrative conventions and also a test of the political muscle of St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger.
For years, officials who manage the convention center have talked about pursuing substantial renovations. They’ve contended the current facility needs more exhibit space, a larger ballroom and more loading docks to attract lucrative conventions.
The $175 million plan they unveiled on Wednesday would make a number of those changes, which St. Louis’ Convention & Visitors Commission President Kitty Ratcliffe said will allow the region to compete.
“Virtually every city in our competitive set for national convention business has improved their convention facilities,” Ratcliffe said. “In some cases, like in Indianapolis or in San Antonio, they’ve done hundreds of millions of dollars to expand or make upgrades to what they had. In other cases, like Nashville or Oklahoma City, they’ve just built whole new buildings.
Currently, St. Louis, St. Louis County and the state put in about $24 million to pay off bonds that were issued to pay for the dome that used to be the home of the St. Louis Rams and is attached to the convention center. Those bonds will be paid off in full after 2021. Krewson and Stenger support issuing new bonds and having the city and county pay a combined $12 million a year from a hotel-motel tax for 40 years for the convention center improvements.
“Frankly, we see cities that are hardly our peer cities advancing and investing in their centers — and sort of leaving us behind,” Stenger said. “We can’t have that. We have to be competitive.”
Ratcliffe said the state is not involved in this project because it’s expanding and enhancing the convention center — not the dome. The state owns about half of the dome, so Ratcliffe said they would be asked to get involved if that facility was enhanced.
Stenger and Krewson need to convince the St. Louis Board of Aldermen and the St. Louis County Council to go along with the plan. That may be challenge. Some aldermen told St. Louis Public Radio in 2017 that they were leery of using all of the $6 million a year that goes for dome bonds now for convention center upgrades.
Aldermen Jack Coatar, 7th Ward, Sam Moore, 4th Ward, and Frank Williamson, 26th Ward, will jointly introduce legislation on the proposal this month. Krewson believes that aldermen will back the plan.
“They know that this is not a competitive convention center,” Krewson said. “So I’m confident that the Board of Aldermen will take a look at this and eventually support this.”
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