Now that the pomp and circumstance of Inauguration Day is wearing off in St. Louis, elected officials must confront a sizable challenge: upgrading the convention center.
The head of St. Louis’ Convention & Visitors Commission recommends roughly $350 million of upgrades for both the convention center and the dome that housed the St. Louis Rams. Already, conventions aren’t looking at St. Louis as a destination, CVC President Kitty Ratcliffe said, and without renovations, the dome may have to close entirely.
The decision to spend more money on the 40-year-old convention center lies in the hands of St. Louis, St. Louis County and the state of Missouri, which put a combined $24 million a year toward paying off bonds for the dome at America’s Center. But there’s no timetable to ask for the extra cash, and politicians’ feelings about putting more money toward downtown are mixed.
Ratcliffe told St. Louis Public Radio that building more loading docks, a larger ballroom and a smoother pathway to move people and equipment between the convention center and the dome is crucial to keep the facility competitive with other cities.
“We’ve lost ground. So your question about when should we do it? We should have done it six years ago,” Ratcliffe said, noting that the FIRST Robotics competition will be in Detroit next year after seven years in St. Louis. “... We should do it now. But as I said from the beginning, we don’t own these buildings. We’re simply the stewards of them.”
To pay for it, Ratcliffe suggests extending the city and county’s $6 million annual payments and the state’s $12 million payments after the dome bonds are fully paid off in 2021. (Both the city and county instituted hotel taxes to pay for and maintain the facility, while the state pays its share from general revenue, a fungible pot of money that can be spent on lots of different things.)
“The numbers are there. And it’s really about helping them understand that their contributions are outweighed by the benefit,” Ratcliffe said. “Just continuing those contributions for additional years with a dedicated stream that requires no new taxes, that’s paid for the visiting public … to keep that engine going — it makes perfect sense.”
Ratcliffe said city, county and state participation would be especially critical for revamping and keeping the dome open.
“If we can’t get them to the table, we can’t do anything with the dome — and the dome pretty much ends in a few years,” she said, referring to the lack of maintenance money come 2025.
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger confirmed this year that he’s had preliminary discussions about the county’s share. St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson said in a statement last week that the convention center and dome “are not competitive,” adding that, “as a region, if we’re going to maintain a competitive convention center and dome, we’re going to have to make improvements.”
Securing money for the project will require buy in from a GOP-controlled legislature. A spokesman for Gov. Eric Greitens didn’t return a request for comment.
The impending debate follows tough fights at the St. Louis Board of Aldermen over building new sports stadiums and revamping the old one, though Ratcliffe and some aldermen stress that’s not a fair comparison.
For one thing, the convention center holds events more than just a handful of times a year, and such events bring out-of-towners to the city’s hotels, stores and restaurants.
“I certainly get that there’s some folks who don’t think that putting public money toward sports facilities that are owned privately or leased in long-term leases is popular,” said Democratic Alderman Jack Coatar, whose 7th Ward contains the convention center. “The [dome] and the America’s Center are public assets. They are owned by a public entity. They serve our convention and tourism industry, which is vitally important to our economy.”
1st Ward Alderman Sharon Tyus, who has served on an aldermanic committee monitoring tourism and convention projects, said she isn’t reflexively opposed to revamping the convention facility, but is skeptical of the city continuing to spend $6 million for the project after the dome bonds are paid off.
“I guess I would be kind of opposed to using all of that $6 million for that — I can see using part of it maybe as a compromise,” said Tyus, who represents six northwest St. Louis neighborhoods. “We can’t just keep pushing downtown at the expense of the rest of the community. It shows up not only in our infrastructure, but also shows up in people leaving the community.”
Ratcliffe doesn’t have a specific timeframe for legislation, noting that it’s important for “that everybody understands and really appreciates the need – and also understands the financing of it.”
Coatar, who could sponsor convention center legislation, said he wants to start talking about it this year and get commitments from the county and the state. That said, Coatar said, he also could see a scenario “where we’d be willing to jump first if we feel comfortable that we have at least more than a wink and a nod from the county and the state.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, pieces together intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.
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