ST. LOUIS — The St. Louis County Council on Tuesday approved a $145 million bond package to expand America’s Center and to build a North County recreation center, even as some council members raised concerns over skyrocketing costs for the expansion project and a lack of detailed plans for the recreation facility.
The council voted 6-1 to release the county’s half of the bonds for the planned $210 million convention center expansion and to issue an additional $40 million in bonds for a recreation center that Council Chair Rita Days has maintained was promised as part of a 2019 deal for the county’s support.
Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-6th District, cast the sole vote against the bond package, raising concerns that the first half of the expansion project was estimated to cost about $40 million more than the $83 million estimated.
On Monday, a panel of city, county and local tourism officials approved a bid from St. Louis County-based Ben Hur Construction Co. The $124 million bid was the only one officials received. Kitty Ratcliffe, who leads the Convention and Visitors Commission that operates the convention center, said Ben Hur had already agreed to reduce its bid by $8 million, and she suggested the cost could drop further as the contract is finalized.
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But Trakas, a longtime critic of the project, said Tuesday it was a sign the project was going to be more costly than advertised.
“We were told over and over again that there was enough money to build this project,” he said. “We now know that was baloney.”
He urged Days to withhold a final vote and schedule a hearing with county and local tourism officials.
“This is the very definition of fiscal irresponsibility,” Trakas said. “If we pass this bill tonight, we are saying to our constituents we don’t care what happens to your money.”
Councilman Mark Harder, R-7th District, said he also wanted a hearing to answer whether the county would be required to take on more debt to finance the convention center expansion and whether that would diminish the tourism and recreation tax proceeds currently set aside for the recreation center.
But Days insisted on a vote, saying she believed the county wouldn’t be obligated to spend more on the convention center project than the original estimate of $105 million.
“Yes the $105 million that we estimated from this council is $105 million,” Days said. “It is my understanding that that is not negotiable.”
Councilman Tim Fitch, R-3rd District, said he expected not to have to issue any more debt for either project.
“They’re going to have to live within their means,” Fitch said.
The vote ends a long delay to release the bonds. Under a 2019 agreement, St. Louis and St. Louis County had agreed to split the $210 million expansion cost, using hotel tax revenue freed up after the retirement of debt issued to build The Dome at America’s Center, where the NFL Rams used to play.
Since August, Days had withheld a final vote until she secured a commitment for the recreation facility. She tied the expansion project supported by labor unions and hotel interests to a project sought by North County leaders supportive of the late Hazel Erby, a longtime councilwoman who had negotiated the original deal. After adding bonds to finance the project, Days last week promised a final vote on the package and held to it despite the change in the projected cost for the convention center expansion.
Meanwhile, Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, said she still had reservations about what exactly the recreational facility would entail.
Days, for weeks, had refused to discuss the project publicly. Post-Dispatch reports had revealed Days was in talks with the University of Missouri-St. Louis for a location for the center and that a prominent developer had tallied the $40 million cost based on a collegiate-level track-and-field facility recommended by tourism officials.
Clancy said Tuesday that “a track-and-field complex isn’t necessarily the same thing as a community center” and that a college campus may not be accessible to all North County residents, but that she had assurances from Days that those issues would be worked out.
“We’ll figure those things out. … I’m not going to stand in the way on this project nor on moving forward with the convention center, which I know is also really important to this region,” she said.
Days said the project was “now in the hands of the administration,” referring to County Executive Sam Page.
“We have done all we need to do,” she said.
Page, who was attending an event held by the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, was not at the council meeting.
A number of local Black officials spoke in favor of the recreation facility, including the Rev. Darryl Gray, with a coalition of Black clergy; St. Louis NAACP President Adolphus Pruitt; and Vinita Park Mayor James McGee, with the 24:1 coalition of North County mayors.
“When you vote, I want you to look our children in the eye,” said McGee, who spoke with a group of youngsters beside him. “We want you to vote yes, because North County has been neglected for too long, and we need something for our young people.”
Earlier Tuesday, politically connected construction executive Bob Clark announced he was again mounting a campaign to kill the convention center expansion project in favor of a new design.
“As a real estate developer, if I put a project out on the street and I got one bid back, I absolutely think I can do better than that,” Clark told the Post-Dispatch Tuesday, hours before the council meeting.
Clark, who founded construction and development firm Clayco in St. Louis, mounted an opposition campaign against the project last summer with prominent local lobbyist Jeff Rainford, the longtime chief of staff for former Mayor Francis Slay. Clark said he always believed the project’s design was ill-conceived and that he told regional leaders as much but went public as the project neared final approval.
Rainford said last week that he had stopped “actively” fighting the project, though Clark’s opinion of it hadn’t changed. But after Monday’s revelation, Clark said he’s rejoining the fight.
“If this isn’t a shocking wake up call for everybody, nothing will be,” Clark said. “I would think any civic leader downtown would be raising their eyebrows.”
Clark scoffed at Ratcliffe’s comments that the Ben Hur contract could go down.
“Change orders usually go up, which is going to be the case here, too,” he said.
Clark is back in the U.S. after President Joe Biden appointed him the United States Commissioner General at Expo 2020 Dubai, a world expo that recently wrapped up in the United Arab Emirates. Clark and his companies are major donors to area politicians and are behind some of the region’s largest development projects.
Clark said he had emailed the St. Louis County executive on Monday night to say he was “dismayed” and “shocked” that city, county and Convention and Visitors Commission officials would move ahead after receiving only one bid.
Around the time Clark’s opposition surfaced, Days, the council chair, held up final approval of the county’s share of bonds while she figured out a way to finance a North County rec center.
Last week, St. Louis County Budget Director Paul Kreidler said he believed the county’s hotel tax fund could cover the additional $40 million in debt for the North County rec center.
But Kreidler said Tuesday it wasn’t clear how the cost overrun for the convention center expansion would affect the equation. He said he was waiting to hear from the city, which is handling the convention center bidding, about whether it would reduce the scope of the project or ask the county to take on more debt.
“There’s just too many unknowns at this point,” he said.
‘Wrong project’Clayco and a longtime associate of Clark, Larry Chapman, helped Days come up with the $40 million cost estimate and a preliminary design for the recreation center.
Asked why he would help with that, in essence moving the convention center project forward, Clark said they were two “separate issues.” He said Clayco often does pro bono planning and architecture work for governments and said there would be a “clear line” so his company wouldn’t “participate in the bidding or the profit stream” of the rec center project.
“There’s been some insinuations that I’m in this for the money, that I’m gonna make some kind of profit,” Clark said. “I just think from a civic and business perspective, it’s the wrong project at the wrong time.”
Clark and Chapman have a financial interest in the Bottle District, just north of the Dome and convention center. Clark has released preliminary renderings of a redesigned convention center that is built on part of the undeveloped Bottle District land he and Chapman have a stake in with Paul McKee’s Northside Regeneration. The Bottle District is somewhat cut off from downtown by the Dome, which Clark said should be demolished.
But Clark said any suggestion that his motives were driven by that financial interest are “absolutely not true” and that he told former Mayor Lyda Krewson as well as Jones he would donate some of the Bottle District land for a larger convention center.
“Clayco and Bob Clark are doing just fine without making any money around the downtown area,” he said.(tncms-asset)37c518b6-bf5e-11ec-830f-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)(tncms-asset)0202bdc0-bb6a-11ec-bc24-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)(tncms-asset)67ee29e6-a3e9-11ec-8e44-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)(tncms-asset)c553eb98-51ff-11ec-be86-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)(tncms-asset)7a0dae10-2623-11ec-b139-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)(tncms-asset)ba2d9db8-0ac9-11ec-a4d3-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)