The St. Louis County Council, on April 19, passed a bill authorizing $105 million in bonds to be used for improvements to America’s Center Convention Complex in downtown St. Louis, and $40 million in bonds for a new indoor track and field complex in North St. Louis County, which had been a project of former council member Hazel Erby (D-District 1).
In 2019, as part of the Convention Complex improvements agreement between the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission (CVC) and St. Louis County, Erby first raised the topic of using county hotel-motel tax revenue to build a recreation center in north county. Following Erby’s death in July 2021, council member Rita Heard Days (D-District 1) took over the initiative. Negotiations and commitments related to the use of those funds have since held up the bond approval at the county level.
When the legislation passed 6-1 on April 19, only council member Ernie Trakas (R-District 6) dissented. His reasoning was based on the anticipated cost of the project versus its lone bid.
Trakas said CVC President Kathleen Ratcliffe made a false promise that the $105 million would cover the cost of the project. However, the lone bid St. Louis City received from its request for proposal (RFP) process ended up being roughly 43% higher than what was budgeted. Trakas said the bid cost was roughly $124 million ($123,867,709). The budgeted amount for the first phase of the project is $80 million.
“She told us that she was confident the CVC had estimated the cost accurately and would not have to scale the project back. As she put it, quote, the program is the program, close quote,” Trakas said. “She said they used national and international expertise to make sure the budget was accurate, and if we gave her the money, we would get the entire project and all of the economic benefits that she promised. We now know that was baloney.”
Dubbed AC Next Gen, the $210 million expansion and facelift of the convention center includes improved and redesigned exhibit space, a 61,000-square-foot ballroom that opens to a ground level outdoor pavilion, enhancement of the Washington Avenue entrance, more than twice the number of loading docks for access to the exhibit space and other improvements, according to the CVC website.
Trakas said there isn’t enough money in the budget to tackle issues concerning the dome, which needs to be maintained or torn down, or to build the CVC a new garage. He said the CVC is going to end up coming back to the council to ask for more money.
“I propose that this council demand that the CVC leadership appear before the council and provide hard, accurate information as to the actual cost of construction, what taxpayers are going to get for their money and whether a scaled back project will deliver the benefits the CVC has promised,” Trakas said prior to the vote on the bonds usage. “If this body passes the bill tonight, it is my hope and expectation that the county executive will make it really clear that his administration is not going to issue any bonds for the Convention Center until he has told this council the purpose, and that the CVC has provided accurate information as to the actual cost and what the taxpayers are going to get for their money.”
Council member Tim Fitch (R- District 3) countered by saying that the price of everything is increasing and the developers are going to have to live within their means.
“If you think (the CVC is) going to come back, which they may, we'll find out, time will tell. They may just have to say, ‘Instead of having 10 new bays for trucks, (we’re) only going to have seven,’” Fitch said. “They're going to have to live within that means, and I feel the same way about the north county rec center.”
In regard to the north county indoor track and field complex, Fitch said, “One of the things I learned a long time ago is you've got to support the youth in the community. I would rather see them playing in a community center than getting in trouble later in life. And, if we do something right now for these kids, downstream, to keep them from any kind of aggravation later in life or any kind of trouble later in life, I will sleep much better tonight.”
Before voting in favor of the bill, council member Lisa Clancy (D-District 5) shared some concerns about the north county complex, such as what amenities it will have and where it will be located. She said north county residents have expressed a desire to have a community center much like others in the county. An indoor track and field complex isn’t necessarily the same thing. She used The Heights community center in Richmond Heights to illustrate her point.
“Those facilities include a playground, a library, multipurpose rooms, a state-of-the-art fitness center and pool. I think these are the kinds of amenities people of all ages expect in a community center,” Clancy said. “So, my question was will the track and field complex meet the expectations I'm hearing from people in the community that want this in their neighborhood?”
Clancy also wondered if community members would be able to access the complex if it was located on a college campus. There has been speculation that the complex will be located at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL); however, nothing has been determined.
“My concern was is this facility going to be buried within a college campus and be difficult for folks to navigate?” Clancy asked. “So, if it ends up at UMSL, will it be accessible for all to enjoy?”
The north county complex has been somewhat controversial because Days has declined to release details of the project despite pushing for its funding via tax dollars, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She told council during its March 8 meeting that the reason she has been reluctant to discuss the project is because “there are several people that do not want this to happen” and she doesn't want it “sabotaged.”
“It is very important to me, it was very important to council woman Hazel Erby, that's why I'm doing this,” Days said when the bill was first introduced. “And so, I want to make sure that it is right, it is correct and that we move forward. It is a sustainable operation that we have here.”
She said “a lot of people” had been volunteering their time and efforts toward the project, but were not willing to come forward and publicly announce their involvement.
“I will say this, we are further along than probably many of you believe and think,” Days said.
An article published in the Post-Dispatch on March 17 sheds some light on details of the proposed complex, including the $40 million cost estimate passed at the April 19 council meeting.
According to the article, Larry Chapman, president and CEO of both Seneca Commercial Real Estate and Chapman Ventures, figured the estimate in partnership with Clayco and sent it to Days in an email dated Feb. 22. The cost estimates include projections for an indoor track, meeting space and a fitness center that appeared to be based on a suggestion for a collegiate-level indoor track facility of the type suggested by the CVC. The Post-Dispatch obtained the information through a Sunshine Law request.
The information also showed Days moving forward with an agreement to house the complex at UMSL, the Post reported.
In an April 20 email to West Newsmagazine, UMSL spokesman Steve Walentik said the university and St. Louis County agreed to look into the feasibility of the project, but there is no agreement at this time that the complex will be built at UMSL.
“The university will continue to engage in conversations if it can be part of the regional solution for building a facility that can benefit both the region and the campus,” Walentik said.
Asked if the complex will be built at UMSL, Days said in an email to West Newsmagazine: “The University has issued a letter of intent to the county. Everything past this point will go through the (RFP) process, which includes the location.”