On the Trail: Sizing up the coming debate over a St. Louis soccer stadium | St. Louis Public Radio

On the Trail: Sizing up the coming debate over a St. Louis soccer stadium

Dec 12, 2016

Before voting against an incentive package for expanding Ballpark Village, St. Louis Alderman Scott Ogilvie delivered one of the more unusual opposition speeches in recent memory.

In an address that could only be described as dripping with sarcasm, the 24th Ward Democrat claimed he was in support of the tax inducements for the development around Busch Stadium. After expressing his concern that aldermen had “taken our eye off the ball on the essential functions of local government,” Ogilvie said he was relieved that those aforementioned issues "must not be problems that the city faces.”

“Because here we have $65 million of tax revenue that could go to the city, but will go to a billionaire developer,” said Ogilvie, speaking on the Board of Aldermen floor on Friday. “I was reading about wealth distribution in the United States. And I was disturbed by the fact that the wealthiest 10 percent of the people in this country have 77 percent of the wealth and assets in this country. … It’s disturbing because those 10 percent, they deserve so much more than they already have.”

The possible expansion of Ballpark Village would include a mix of retail, entertainment office and residential space.
Credit St. Louis Cardinals

Ogilvie’s address wasn’t enough to stop the Ballpark Village plan from initial passage. But in some ways, his words were an opening salvo of sorts to an impending debate over publicly funding a professional soccer stadium. Although the SC STL proposal and the Ballpark Village requests are unrelated, they both fall into a similar category: Providing public support to facilitate sports-related development.

“In the big picture, the city’s needs are extremely dire in a lot of realms that we all know – because we’re laboring in the vineyards on a daily basis,” Alderman Tom Villa, D-11th Ward, said last week. “Just speaking as an individual, the economics of pro sports has completely lost me.”

Publicly funding sports facilities is a touchy subject for aldermen, especially after a year-long legislative fight over a scuttled riverfront football stadium stoked passionate debate and raw feelings. This stadium episode also arrives a few months before an unpredictable municipal election cycle, one where members of the Board of Aldermen are either running for mayor or re-election.

If that weren't enough, the looming soccer stadium debate comes when some aldermen are looking at development incentives more critically. That includes Alderman Christine Ingrassia, who represents the ward where the proposed soccer stadium is located. 

Ingrassia said she’s been talking with St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay’s office about sponsoring a soccer-related bill. Aldermen typically handle bills that affect their wards. But the 6th Ward Democrat went on to say that “I’m happy that city voters will be making the determination at the ballot on the issue. I do want to make sure we’re sending something that’s as responsible as possible.”

According to documents sent to the Missouri Development Finance Board, more than 30 percent of the project’s total cost will feature some sort of state or local support. Take out the estimated $200 million expansion fee that’ll be paid for with private sources, and that public subsidy goes up to 60 percent.

“There’s a certain level or percentage of tax incentives that I’m just not comfortable with. And when it crawls up to 30 or 40 or 50 percent or higher, I’m never going to be in favor of something like that,” Ingrassia said. She  added that she’ll check to see whether a substantial community development agreement is attached to the project.

“I would love to be able to introduce the legislation. But if I’m not comfortable with it, I will not that do that. And I’m sure the mayor’s office will partner with another alderman to bring that forth,” she said

Different dynamics?

While any ballot measure related to stadium financing is bound to provoke debate, some key differences exist between the Rams saga and the MLS chase.

St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed, left, talks with Aldermen Sam Moore, center, and Antonio French last year about a riverfront stadium funding deal.
Credit File photo by Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

For one thing, backers of the soccer proposal have vowed to take any proposal to the voters, which wasn’t the case during the riverfront stadium saga. And frankly, backers of the project may not have a choice. If the city-based public financing requires raising some sort of tax, the Missouri Constitution almost always requires a public vote.

“Some of the negative feeling was that it had not gone to a public vote and we intend to take this issue to a public vote, said Otis Williams, director of the St. Louis Development Corp., last week after a Missouri Development Finance Board meeting.

(It's worth noting that, at least as of now, St. Louis County isn't planning on voting to expend funds toward this project — which is a commonality with the Rams stadium situation.)

The proposed St. Louis soccer stadium would be west of Union Station.
Credit Courtesy of HOK

Unlike the Rams, who were hell-bent on taking their substandard product to the Los Angeles area, there appears to be real momentum  Major League Soccer expanding to St. Louis.  After all, the SC STL proposal featured positive sentiments from MLS Commissioner Don Garber. And the ownership group features people experienced in owning sports franchises, namely Paul Edgerley (Celtics).

Garber said last week that his league would soon roll out “a process and a timeline for our next round of expansion, which will add clubs 25, 26, 27 and 28 to Major League Soccer.”

“We’ll learn pretty quickly as to the timeline for expansion – the number of teams, the application process, and what that application fee may be,” said SC STL’s Jim Woodcock last week in Jefferson City. “At that point, the ball really gets rolling. And the application process is indeed a process. We’ve got to show a lot. And we’re prepared to do that.”

Whether these variables are enough to cool opposition in the Board of Aldermen remains to be seen. But one thing’s for sure: If stadium backers want to get a funding proposal on the April 2017 ballot, they’ll need to act quickly. The deadline to get something on that ballot is Jan. 24.

St. Louis Public Radio's Rachel Lippmann and Marshall Griffin contributed information for this story.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics. 

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum