It’s Groundhog Day for Saint Louis and NFL Stadiums
The story is everywhere: Saint Louis is in danger of losing its NFL team because the city’s current stadium is outdated. With the team on the verge of moving, state officials have developed a plan for a new publicly financed state-of-the-art stadium, but it may be too late. The owner sees greener pastures out west, and, after year upon year of subpar play on the field, fan support is tepid. They may not support using public dollars to finance a new domed stadium.
That’s right, this story is not about the Rams; it’s about the St. Louis Football Cardinals circa 1988. But the stories are so similar that, if the Post-Dispatch were to change the date, a few proper nouns, and replace “dome” with “open-air stadium,” they could easily republish articles written decades ago.
If Saint Louis’ position is analogous to the one it experienced in 1988, there is much reason for caution. Back then the conventional wisdom was that domed stadiums were the future and open-air venues were a thing of the past. As one Post-Dispatch writer put it, “A domed multi-purpose building, involving an enlarged convention center, would not be the white elephant of an isolated, open-air athletic stadium.”* Despite the last-ditch stadium proposal, the Cardinals moved anyway.
But that did not stop plans for a dome. Then, as today, regional leaders claimed that having an NFL team was a boon for the local economy and city pride. Thus, building a new stadium was the “progressive” action, and it was needed to “compete for sports, convention and political bucks.”* In the area of urban development, the Post-Dispatch published articles about how the RCA Dome transformed downtown Indianapolis, hinting at similar results for Saint Louis. In a demonstration of an uncritical, keeping up with the Joneses mindset that too often guides municipal governance, one prominent stadium plan supporter commented, “You know, the other cities that have built domes are not totally stupid.”* When state and local residents voted to go forward with a publically financed dome, one Post-Dispatch columnist claimed that it “all sounds like a dream.”*
Now the dream is over. While Saint Louis eventually lured the Rams in 1995, it did so with a sweetheart deal that has been described as the “worst lease ever,” part of which frees the Rams to leave the city after only 20 years. The dome, which was described as “cutting-edge” and even “intimate”* in 1995, is regularly maligned. In fact, talk of the dome being out of date began as early as 2007, just 12 years after it was completed. As for urban regeneration, other than the heavily subsidized developments on Washington Avenue, progress has been limited and certainly not centered on the dome.
The history of the Edward Jones Dome demonstrates the pitfalls of using public dollars to chase the NFL. Perhaps that will cause Missourians and public officials to be more skeptical of the new stadium proposal. But then again, you know, the other cities that have built open-air stadiums are not totally stupid.