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The Political History Behind Our Current NFL Stadium

Demolition of the decade-old Sheraton Hotel to make room for the new football stadium. July 1992 --- looking South from Cole & 7th
Demolition of the decade-old Sheraton Hotel to make room for the new football stadium. July 1992 — looking South from Cole & 7th. Photo by Steve Patterson

As we debate a new NFL stadium it’s important to understand the history going back nearly three decades. For that I asked Heywood Sanders, Professor of Public Administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio, if I could publish an excerpt from his book Convention Center Follies: Politics, Power, and Public Investment in American Cities, which I posted about in December. He agreed, sending me the requested text.

The following is from Chapter 8 on St. Louis’ convention center:

The successful passage of the expansion taxes assured more space for the Cervantes Center. But the issue of an attached domed stadium was still unresolved at the end of 1987, as was the future of the Cardinals football team. In late October Bill Bidwell had announced plans to move from St. Louis, and had begun to flirt with city officials in Phoenix, Baltimore, and Columbus. In a last-ditch effort to keep the team in St. Louis, Governor John Ashcroft and Charles Knight, representing Civic Progress, made a final offer to Bidwell, including a new 70,000-seat domed stadium adjacent to the convention center (to be jointly financed by the city, county, and state) and a guarantee of $5 million a year in additional income to the team from Civic Progress companies. Despite the promises, Bidwell announced in mid-January 1988 that he was moving the team to Phoenix. [161]

The loss of the team was termed by an editorial in the Post-Dispatch as “a blow to the area’s economy as well as its pride.” If so, it was a blow the Civic Progress leaders were entirely unwilling to accept. The business leaders continued to press for state legislation creating a Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority to finance construction of a domed stadium adjacent to the convention center, with the hope that passage could persuade the National Football League to intervene and halt the proposed move to Phoenix. When that gambit failed—the NFL owners voted 26-0 with two abstentions to approve Bidwell’s move—Civic Progress remained unwilling to accept the loss of an NFL team. The organization continued to pursue the development of a new stadium as the necessary first step in securing a team. [162]

Charles Knight of Emerson Electric told his Civic Progress colleagues in late March, with the loss of the Cardinals inescapable, that he “had devoted a tremendous amount of effort, as a representative of Civic Progress, in trying to line up a professional football team franchise for St. Louis.” Knight went on, “we do not have a football team and we do not have a consensus among our political leaders regarding the construction of a new stadium.” Absent some form of agreement between the city and county, and a fiscal commit- ment from the state government, there was little likelihood of actually building a new stadium. [163]

Charles Knight told the group, “If St. Louis had a stadium, we could get an NFL team. Built as part of the Cervantes Convention Center, a new domed stadium would give St. Louis the fourth largest convention center in the United States. Additional convention business would bring more new money to St. Louis than the revenues from professional football. However, St. Louis will not be perceived as a big league city until it has a modern football stadium and an NFL team.”

Civic Progress was fully committed to keeping St. Louis an NFL city. The group was equally committed to seeing a new stadium downtown, built and operated as a part of a larger convention complex. So too was Vince Schoemehl. But for County Executive McNary, the prospect of a downtown stadium offered nothing to the suburban county, except as a bargaining chip. McNary continued to promote the idea of a less expensive, open air stadium at the suburban Riverport site. He addressed a letter to St. Louis leaders in May 1988, saying, “I find it amazing that the same Mayor who drove the football Cardinals to Phoenix can continue to undermine our efforts to move this community into the next century.” And he continued his fight with Schoemehl in public, arguing in a June 1988 newspaper article, “Downtown is a very important part of St. Louis but not all of St. Louis.” [164]

As McNary was promoting his stadium, Vince Schoemehl was moving ahead with the plans for the expanded Cervantes Convention Center. Denny Coleman, the city’s economic development head, outlined the effort to Civic Progress in July, stressing (in language underlined in the meeting minutes), “The southern expansion provides additional room for a stadium, should one be built.” But Coleman emphasized that the expanded center “should have a positive impact on Washington Avenue,” where efforts to renew the old ware- houses and industrial lofts had “slowed in recent months . . . . However, the announcement of plans to expand the center to the south has already created a renewed interest in investing in this area.” [165]

Just as Leif Svedrup and the Civic Progress leadership had pressed for the north side site for the convention center originally, Coleman and Schoemehl considered its expansion as a crucial element in bolstering the renewal of the Washington Avenue corridor, and supporting the nearby St. Louis Centre mall as well.

Yet the larger commitment of the Civic Progress leaders was evident in a question from William Cornelius of Union Electric, asking about the possibility of an adjacent stadium. In response (again underlined), “Mayor Schoemehl said that if such a stadium is ever constructed it would make the St. Louis Convention Center the fourth largest facility in the nation. When present plans are implemented, it will be the 10th largest.”

Neither Civic Progress nor Mayor Schoemehl was willing to abandon plans for a domed stadium attached to the convention center. For County Executive McNary, the lack of a football tenant made any form of private stadium financing effectively impossible. Public financing meant that he had to secure approval from the state legislature to raise the county’s hotel tax. There, the opposition of the Civic Progress business leaders could make all the difference.

Gene McNary admitted defeat at the January 23, 1989, Civic Progress meeting, and more publicly the following month. After bowing out of the stadium fight, McNary shortly bowed out of St. Louis, with a presidential appointment as commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, announced in May 1989. [166]

New state legislation for a regional sports facility authority, backed by city, county, and state financing, moved quickly through the legislature in the first months of 1989, greased by the inclusion of language providing state funding for a convention center expansion in Kansas City. But it ran into a political problem with Governor John Ashcroft. The governor took a dim view of the lack of a revenue source for the state debt and the argument that the stadium would generate a “net fiscal benefit,” primarily by attracting larger conventions to St. Louis. Still, faced with what the Post-Dispatch would later term “intense lobbying from business and civic leaders from the state’s three met- ropolitan areas. . . . some very important people wanted this, no matter what,” Ashcroft signed the bill, providing state funds for half the cost of the new St. Louis stadium, in mid-July. [167]

The balance of the roughly $120 million cost for the new downtown dome was to be divided evenly between the city and county governments. With the departure of Gene McNary, H. C. Milford was appointed county executive, and he quickly moved to reassure the Civic Progress leaders of his commitment to the downtown stadium, telling the group in November that the new football stadium was among his “first priorities.” [168]

Milford’s active support was vital to the stadium project, even with the commitment from the state. The county’s one-quarter share of the project needed a new revenue source, and that hotel tax increase had to be approved by a majority of the county voters. Civic Progress made victory in the April 1990 tax vote a central priority, backing the campaign with a contribution of over $400,000. The result was a 65 to 35 percent success.

The city government chose a very different fiscal path from the county’s. Schoemehl had already succeeded—barely—in boosting hotel and restaurant taxes to pay for the expansion of the Cervantes Center. Local hoteliers and restaurateurs were notably cool to the idea of more taxes. In advance of the county tax vote, the lawyer for the local hotel association sought some assurance about the city’s hotel tax. Chief of staff Milton Svetanics wrote a memo to Schoemehl in December 1989, outlining the association’s concerns and his response that “our position had not changed . . . . We expect the new fiscal benefit to be sufficient to meet the needs of the bonds . . . .We do not intend to seek a hotel tax, since we don’t think we’ll need it.” [169]

City comptroller Virvus Jones pressed Schoemehl to commit to a new or increased tax for the stadium bonds, a conflict that played out in public through 1991 and into 1992. But, faced with continuing opposition from hotel and restaurant owners, city officials ultimately chose to avoid the voters and assume that the “fiscal benefit” from the stadium and convention center would suffice to repay the bonds. [170]

The expanded Cervantes Convention Center opened for business in May 1993. Center director Bruce Sommer boasted, “we can now go after bigger groups . . . . But the more important reason for the expansion was to allow us to have simultaneous, mid-sized shows.” And the general manager of the St. Louis Centre mall just to the south said, “We’re expecting a 15 to 20 percent increase in traffic . . . and a large increase in business.” [171]

The expanded center was joined by the new stadium, dubbed the Trans World Dome, in November 1995; the full complex offered a total of 502,000 square feet of exhibit space. In 1988, Mayor Schoemehl had told Civic Prog- ress that the total convention complex would place St. Louis fourth in the ranking of centers. Relying on the Laventhol consultants, he was wrong.

Over the decade it took Schoemehl to realize an expanded center, other cities had been planning and building their own new and expanded convention facilities. Laventhol consultants David Petersen and Charlie Johnson had gone on to other cities—San Diego, Atlanta, and Cincinnati for Petersen; Chicago, Charlotte, and Austin for Johnson—and recommended more convention center space there as well.

When the center/stadium fully opened in late 1995, Tradeshow Week ranked it twentieth among U.S. convention centers. That put it below such cities as Detroit, Dallas, and San Diego, and roughly equal to Kansas City, Houston, and Tulsa. Far from being in the lead as a major meeting destination, St.Louis was competing with a host of other cities. Indeed, the expanded convention complex yielded far fewer convention attendees than the Laventhol consultants had predicted.

There were other competitive problems as well. In 1989, another Laventhol study had argued that the expanded center required a major adjacent headquarters hotel with circa 1,100 rooms. But despite repeated efforts over almost a decade, the city could not find a private developer to invest in a hotel. Finally, in 1999, city officials came up with a financing scheme that involved pairing $98 million in federal Empowerment Zone bonds and other public funds with a small amount of private capital to turn two historic buildings into the new headquarters hotel. [172]

The new Renaissance Grand hotel opened in February 2003. But with the America’s Center underperforming, the new hotel struggled (and usually failed) to earn an operating profit and pay its debts. In February 2009, the bondholders foreclosed on the hotel. Still, with the America’s Center drawing even more poorly in the wake of the recession, the hotel managed an occu- pancy rate of just 52 percent in 2010, with an operating loss—before debt service—of $420,000.

Vince Schoemehl’s vision of conventions as an economic engine boosting the city’s overall economy and creating a flood of new jobs proved an abject failure. And many of the downtown projects that had pressed Schoemehl to fill their new hotel rooms and boost their business were proving failures as well. Fred Kummer’s Adam’s Mark hotel, originally supported by a federal Urban Development Action Grant and intended to be the city’s convention headquarters hotel before the Renaissance, saw dropping occupancy after 2000 and was finally sold, cheaply, in early 2008. The St. Louis Centre mall, where managers had pinned their hopes on the prospect of new convention- eers, struggled through the 1990s as major national retailers left and vacancies grew, and was bought out of foreclosure in 2004 “for the bargain basement price of $5.4 million.” Two years later, it was empty and was poised for rebuilding as apartments and a parking garage, and yet another hotel. [173]

Civic Progress had neatly succeeded in getting both the new stadium and the NFL football team (the Rams from Los Angeles) that it so wanted, along with other projects aimed at redeeming downtown. Whether those “suc- cesses” had indeed succeeded in keeping St. Louis—the city’s population having fallen from 453,085 in 1980 to 319,294 in 2010—a “big league city” is open to question.

The entire book is recommended, especially all of  chapter 8 on St. Louis. Unfortunately neither the St. Louis Public Library or St. Louis County Library list it in their catalogs. It can be ordered through Left Bank BooksAmazon, etc.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Civic Progress is behind the current efforts to keep the Rams from leaving. If only they had the wherewithal to help rebuild St. Louis into a city/region that would be a magnet for people, new businesses.

— Steve Patterson

 

Tree of Books At St. Louis Central Library

December 23, 2014 Books, Featured, Popular Culture Comments Off on Tree of Books At St. Louis Central Library

The St. Louis Central Library has the best “tree” on display right now.

Tree of books at the Central Library
Tree of books at the Central Library

Beautiful, plus no watering necessary or pine needles to clean up!

— Steve Patterson

 

Another Book Gift Idea: Under One Flag: A Journey from 9/11 to the Heartland

December 19, 2014 Books, Featured 1 Comment

underoneflagOn Tuesday I told you about Convention Center Follies: Politics, Power, and Public Investment in American Cities by Heywood T. Sanders and a week ago about about five St. Louis books. Today’s book, a beautifully photographed hardcover coffee table book, deserved its own post:

To mark the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a group of volunteers acknowledged the fallen by posting 2,996 American flags at a city park in St. Louis, Missouri. One of the flags honored New York City firefighter Michael Weinberg, a first responder who died Ground Zero. In a twist of fate, Michael’s flag went unnoticed at auction after the event but, as a result, would make a remarkable journey through the Midwest. Under One Flag chronicles this journey with poignant, richly illustrated stories of American heroism and the conviction of those intent on paying tribute. Key among the latter are grassroots organizer Rick Randall and also Larry Eckhardt, known as “The Flag Man” for placing flags along the routes of soldiers’ funerals. Through Larry’s efforts, Michael’s flag would fly in Preston, Iowa, to honor Marine Corporal Zach Reiff, who died serving his country in Afghanistan. Under One Flag shows how lives interweave when compassion serves as the common tie. It is the collective story of people who want nothing but give everything.

Under One Flag: A Journey from 9/11 to the Heartland is published locally by Reedy Press.

— Steve Patterson

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Reading: Convention Center Follies: Politics, Power, and Public Investment in American Cities by Heywood T. Sanders

Cover

Friday I listed five books about St. Louis to consider as gifts.  Today’s book, a massive volume, isn’t about St. Louis. Well, not entirely. Chapter 8, titled “St. Louis: Protection from Erosion”, is the story of our own convention center folly. From the publisher:

American cities have experienced a remarkable surge in convention center development over the last two decades, with exhibit hall space growing from 40 million square feet in 1990 to 70 million in 2011—an increase of almost 75 percent. Proponents of these projects promised new jobs, new private development, and new tax revenues. Yet even as cities from Boston and Orlando to Phoenix and Seattle have invested in more convention center space, the return on that investment has proven limited and elusive. Why, then, do cities keep building them?

Written by one of the nation’s foremost urban development experts, Convention Center Follies exposes the forces behind convention center development and the revolution in local government finance that has privileged convention centers over alternative public investments. Through wide-ranging examples from cities across the country as well as in-depth case studies of Chicago, Atlanta, and St. Louis, Heywood T. Sanders examines the genesis of center projects, the dealmaking, and the circular logic of convention center development. Using a robust set of archival resources—including internal minutes of business consultants and the personal papers of big city mayors—Sanders offers a systematic analysis of the consultant forecasts and promises that have sustained center development and the ways those forecasts have been manipulated and proven false. This record reveals that business leaders sought not community-wide economic benefit or growth but, rather, to reshape land values and development opportunities in the downtown core.

A probing look at a so-called economic panacea, Convention Center Follies dissects the inner workings of America’s convention center boom and provides valuable lessons in urban government, local business growth, and civic redevelopment.

Reading the background on how the Cervantes Convention Center came to be is fascinating! There were competing proposals to locate a convention center elsewhere, including near Union Station.

Cervantes Convention Center. 801 Convention Center Plaza. St. Louis Mo. August, 1977. Photograph (35mm Kodachrome) by Ralph D'Oench, 1977. Missouri Historical Society Photographs and Prints Collections. NS 30747. Scan © 2006, Missouri Historical Society.
Cervantes Convention Center. 801 Convention Center Plaza. St. Louis Mo. August, 1977. Photograph (35mm Kodachrome) by Ralph D’Oench, 1977. Missouri Historical Society Photographs and Prints Collections. NS 30747. Scan © 2006, Missouri Historical Society.

Other chapters deal with other aspects, for example:

  • Paying for the box (Ch2)
  • Promises and Realities (Ch3)
  • They Will Come…and Spend (Ch4)

If you want a complete overview of convention centers this is the book for you.

— Steve Patterson

 

Gift Idea: Books About St. Louis

December 12, 2014 Books, Featured Comments Off on Gift Idea: Books About St. Louis

MakingTracksWho doesn’t like books? Below are five books from 2014 to consider:

Hoosiers and Scrubby Dutch: St. Louis’s South Side, 2nd Edition by Jim Merkel

On the South Side, there lived a tactless TV guy who had a way of getting tossed out of everything on camera, from the old VP Fair to Bill Clinton’s 1996 local re-election victory party. On the South Side, there dwelt a collector of ancient vacuum cleaners, none of which worked when he demonstrated them before millions of guffawing viewers watching on national television. And on the South Side, a beer baron tried to fight off Prohibition with a high-class, three-sided beer hall. It’s all in the second edition of Hoosiers and Scrubby Dutch: St. Louis’s South Side. The first edition captured the essence of South St. Louis, with its tales of women scrubbing steps every Saturday, the yummy brain sandwich, and a nationally known gospel performer who ran a furniture store in the Cherokee neighborhood. These stories, along with the new ones that fill the second edition, convey what gives a truly unique place its rough but charming personality. The result-Holy Hoosiers!-is an edition that’s even better than the first!

Making Tracks: The Untold Story of Horse Racing in St. Louis, 1767-1905 by Nancy E. Carver

At one time, horse racing was a more popular sport than baseball. Nowhere was this reality more apparent than in St. Louis. From 1767 to 1905, throngs of excited St. Louisans rooted for their horses in almost twenty different racing venues around the area. Making Tracks takes readers on a tour of local tracks and racing history, where surprising facts emerge. St. Louis had the first night racing in the country; the St. Louis Browns, a professional baseball team, shared their baseball field with a race track; the St. Louis World’s Fair Handicap in 1904 dazzled the racing world with a $50,000 purse; famous people, including celebrated jockeys and horsemen, came to St. Louis to race; and the Delmar Loop track made history as the city’s last track and the scene of a notorious raid orchestrated by the Missouri governor. The track histories capture the thrill of the sport and the flavor of the times, including the political, social, economic, and religious realities involved. Making Tracks is a must read for horse racing fans, local history buffs, and people who love a good story. Saddle up and take a ride on bygone tracks once filled with passionate and engaged fans.

Happy Birthday, St. Louis! by Carolyn Mueller, illustrated by Ed Koehler

St. Louis has an amazing history that includes the landing of Chouteau in 1764, a famous World’s Fair, Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight the building of the Gateway Arch, and many other great moments. Happy Birthday, St. Louis! captures the city’s highlights along with a tradition that features steamboats, trains, baseball, and music. St. Louis is truly a place to be celebrated. Join the party celebrating 250 years and many, many more! For ages 3-8.

The Making of an Icon: The Dreamers, the Schemers, and the Hard Hats Who Built the Gateway Arch by Jim Merkel

The Gateway Arch is one of America’s most distinctive and beloved national monuments. Much has been written about the Arch, but no book has captured the legend, lore, and spirit behind its conception and construction, until now. The Making of an Icon: The Dreamers, the Schemers, and the Hard Hats Who Built the Gateway Arch compiles well-known, and rare, stories about the visionaries, finaglers, protesters, and fearless-but-skilled hands involved in an incredible undertaking that courted as much controversy as it did enthusiasm. The dreamers included the architect Eero Saarinen, who spent fourteen years tweaking his design for a Gateway Arch but never lived to see it built. Topping the list of schemers was Democratic Mayor Bernard Dickmann, who threatened to throw Missouri to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Republican opponent if the president wouldn’t provide money for Smith’s memorial. That was left to intrepid workers who walked without lanyards hundreds of feet above the ground. Today, 2.5 million visit the Gateway Arch every year, and more than 100,000 motorists view the 63-story monument daily from miles away and up close. Many already comprehend its symbolic meaning and physical beauty. The Making of An Icon helps us appreciate the relentless pursuit, innovation, and toil that made the Arch happen.

The Gateway Arch: A Biography by Tracy Campbell

Winner of the 2014 Missouri History Book Award given by The State Historical Society of Missouri.

Rising to a triumphant height of 630 feet, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis is a revered monument to America’s western expansion. Envisioned in 1947 but not completed until the mid-1960s, the arch today attracts millions of tourists annually and is one of the world’s most widely recognized structures. By weaving together social, political, and cultural history, historian Tracy Campbell uncovers the complicated and troubling history of the beloved structure. This compelling book explores how a medley of players with widely divergent motivations (civic pride, ambition, greed, among others) brought the Gateway Arch to fruition, but at a price the city continues to pay.

Campbell dispels long-held myths and casts a provocative new light on the true origins and meaning of the Gateway Arch. He shows that the monument was the scheme of shrewd city leaders who sought to renew downtown St. Louis and were willing to steal an election, destroy historic buildings, and drive out local people and businesses to achieve their goal. Campbell also tells the human story of the architect Eero Saarinen, whose prize-winning design brought him acclaim but also charges of plagiarism, and who never lived to see the completion of his vision. As a national symbol, the Gateway Arch has a singular place in American culture, Campbell concludes, yet it also stands as an instructive example of failed urban planning.

Be sure to look for these and other books at local bookstores.

— Steve Patterson

 

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