A $175 million overhaul of the America’s Center Convention Complex took a big step to becoming a reality Tuesday when the St. Louis County Council voted to financially contribute to the project.
But that decision was contentious, sharply dividing the council’s four Democrats and three Republicans down partisan lines.
Councilwoman Hazel Erby’s bill would devote $6 million annually for 40 years toward paying off the convention center upgrades for up to 40 years. The county would use proceeds from a hotel-motel tax to pay for the upgrades, which would include expanded exhibit space, more loading docks and a bigger ballroom.
Erby’s legislation would also steer some excess money from that tax to a recreation complex in north St. Louis County.
“I dream big,” said Erby, D-University City. “I dream of a nice entertainment complex where we can hire people in the community … We have a lot of dreams in North County. We’re always left out. So this is a time for us to plan something.”
Erby’s bill passed 4-3. It now heads to St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, who is expected to sign off on the plan. The St. Louis Board of Aldermen approved their contribution to the project earlier this year.
Officials that run the convention center have contended the downtown St. Louis facility is falling behind other cities — and therefore losing out on lucrative conventions. That was a key point that Explore St. Louis’ Kitty Ratcliffe hammered home to councilmembers.
“I don’t mean to offend anyone when I say this, because Peoria is a very nice place. But I don’t think St. Louis wants to be Peoria,” Ratcliffe said. “And if we don’t make the improvements in our tourism infrastructure with the tourism tax dollars generated for that purpose and approved by the voters, well, I’m afraid that’s a risk that we’re going face.”
“I can smell it up here and it stinks.”
Erby’s bill brought a sharp rebuke from Councilman Ernie Trakas, a south county St. Louis Republican who has worked with Democrats on a multitude of issues.
“Can you smell it? Can you?” Trakas said. “Because I can smell it up here, and it stinks.”
He questioned how St. Louis County would benefit from a convention center overhaul. He also said he didn’t like how his colleagues were directing money toward the project when the county has other financial needs.
“All it does is cost us money,” Trakas said. “We have employees that we can’t give raises to and roads you can’t drive on. And we’re going to give you $6 million a year with no return to the county? Shame on this body. Shame on it. And shame on my Democratic colleagues if they pass this vote tonight.”
Erby said that hotel-motel tax proceeds have to go toward tourism-related initiatives. She also said the project could help the entire region — especially if more conventions lead to more people staying at area hotels.
But other councilmembers, such as Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, questioned why the county should steer money to a recreation center in north St. Louis County when there isn’t a firm plan to make it happen.
“We’re committing about $1 million-ish a year in this reserve to something that we don’t have a plan for, we don’t have land for, we don’t know what the project looks like or where it’s going to be,” Harder said. “None of those questions have been asked or answered, and I wish we could have had that discussion.”
Erby said she’s willing to fight to bring an attraction to north St. Louis County, a predominantly African American area that’s struggled with poverty and disinvestment. “I listen to my community,” she said. “I want something in my community that I can be proud of.”
Councilman Tim Fitch, R-St. Louis County, voted with Trakas and Harder against Erby's bill. Erby joined Councilman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, and Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray in voting for the measure.
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