More than $200 million in new funding for improvements to the St. Louis Convention Center is being held up until members of the St. Louis County Council get more clarity on exactly how those funds will be used.
At the heart of the Oct. 5 debate were funds earmarked for a
proposed North County recreational facility that were added to the Convention Center expansion project in 2019 by then-council woman Hazel Erby, whose District 1 seat represents North County residents.
Most of the significant work of the council took place prior to the council meeting at a special Committee of the Whole at which Kathleen (Kitty) Ratcliffe, president of the St. Louis County Visitors and Convention Bureau (VCB), presented the Convention Center proposal.
Dubbed AC Next Gen, the expansion of the Convention Center (America’s Center) would be a $175 million expansion and facelift. According to the VCB’s website, it would include improved and redesigned exhibit space; a new approximately 61,000-square-foot ballroom that opens to a ground-level, outdoor pavilion; enhancement of its Washington Avenue entrance; additional loading docks for access to the exhibit space and other improvements.
In 2019, Erby had pressed to have surplus funds from the proposed $210 million funding request be used toward a North County Recreation Center. An idea that council member Ernie Trakas (R-District 6) has steadfastly opposed.
On Oct. 5, Trakas chastised Ratcliffe as being unprepared to answer questions on the North County center and AC Next Gen.
“You knew this (meeting) was coming for months and the fact that you couldn’t do any better than show up with this, madam, is keeping with the reckless attitude, at least in my opinion, that you and your organization have taken to this body and the money you get from St. Louis County,” Trakas said in admonishing Ratcliffe. “I, for one, want another bite at the apple with you.”
Ratcliffe’s presentation of a 110-page report on the proposed North County recreational facility was given to members of the council just moments before the committee meeting began. And, although Ratcliffe explained how events at the Convention Center drive tourism dollars in the greater St. Louis area, marked by the increased occupancy of area hotels, and includes millions of additional dollars spent with local businesses, several members of the council couldn’t move past the “promised” North County facility.
“Did you make a commitment on behalf of VCB to our late colleague, Hazel Erby, you were going to facilitate and complete the North County facility?” Trakas asked Ratcliffe.
“No, no. That’s not our promise,” Ratcliffe replied. “Our promise is that we would complete a gap analysis … to determine what type of facility it should be.”
Ratcliffe contends that when the deal was passed by the council, there were no mechanisms designated for funding or operating the proposed recreational facility. That deal was a positive vote by the county council in April 2019 to extend a lodging tax increase to allow for the expansion of America’s Center. Prior to that vote, Erby had added language to the bill enabling the county to use 35% of the money remaining, after the convention center bonds were paid, toward developing the North County recreation center.
According to Ratcliffe, the VCB’s role was to help get the process started and fund the needed “gap analysis” to better understand the need for the recreational center and the opportunities it would present. She noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed movement on the project.
“(Erby) said she wanted this for North County and we said (VCB) would support it as long as there was a tourism component with it,” Ratcliffe told the committee.
The 110-page report, completed by an outside consulting firm, recommends building an indoor track venue that could hold 4,000 to 5,000 spectators. Based on the recommendation, the facility should meet NCAA standards and be useful to groups on multiple levels of competition.
Depending on what uses the facility would serve, the proposed recreational facility could cost between $20 million and $50 million, according to the consultants.
“That’s a huge range,” council member Mark Harder (R-District 7) said, noting that the spend seemed especially large for a “unique” or niche facility.
Ratcliffe replied that the study supported a “huge demand” for this type of facility but that a “lot of work still needed to be done” before the project moved forward.
In addition to the proposed recreational center, some members of the council had questions about AC Next Gen. Trakas expressed surprise that the project’s budget had not been impacted by COVID-19.
“So the 30% increase to construction costs (nationwide) has not impacted your plans at all then?” Trakas asked. “How is it the same plan that you started with 18 months ago, or longer, somehow doesn’t cost you 30% more now?”
“We have very good, nationally and internationally recognized people working on (cost analysis and budget) here,” Ratcliffe responded. “This is not my area of expertise. But I will tell you we have worked hard on it every single day to make the budget work. And make it work for us and our customers in terms of what we need for the facility.”
Trakas also grilled Ratcliffe on how the annual revenue from the county’s hotel tax (nearly $13 million) is spent and how it benefits residents in St. Louis County. His extended questioning seemed to drive at criticisms voiced by some that money from residents outside the city is being spent primarily to benefit businesses and residents of the city.
“Have you considered any alternatives to spending the county’s money in the city?” Trakas asked.
Ratcliffe bristled at Trakas’ suggestion and pointed out that the money Trakas was asking about is used for marketing events and attractions in the greater St. Louis area.
“We do great work and we did it during the pandemic,” she responded. “We helped get business here … to get businesses reopened during the pandemic.”
The council did not vote on the pending funding request, meaning that improvements to the Convention Center will remain on hold for now.