With Riverfront Stadium Dead, City Leaders Back Other Expensive Projects
When the Rams decided to move to Los Angeles, it meant the end of plans to spend $400 million on a new stadium in downtown Saint Louis. Well, probably. But like cutting off the head of the Hydra, the decapitation of one spending proposal seems to spawn two more. Thus, it comes as little surprise that even with the autopsy of Rams move still in newspapers, new hundred-million-dollar-plus plans for stadiums and convention centers are gathering steam.
According to the Saint Louis Convention and Visitors Commission (CVC), the Scottrade Center, the America Center, and the Edward Jones Dome are in need of expensive renovations. The suggestion is that the Scottrade Center requires $100 million in upgrades, the America Center needs $120 million to remain competitive, and as for Dome, the head of CVC didn’t even have estimate. If the Post-Dispatch is to be believed, the Dome will need $64 million just to maintain its current condition. The price tag for any major changes is likely to be much higher. Altogether, the cost of renovations to just these three facilities would come to more than $280 million.
So who will pay for these renovations? With the convention center and dome, it will almost certainly come from the public, and probably from Saint Louis City. The Scottrade Center was mainly a privately funded enterprise, but there is no guarantee that renovations would be handled in the same manner.
If the city is forced to shoulder the burden of these upgrades, it could be backbreaking. The city’s outstanding debt on the convention center, dome, and Scottrade Center is about $420 million already, requiring more than $20 million in annual debt service. The city also spends an additional $5.7 million on conventions and tourism, most of which goes to convention center operations. These costs far outstrip the total revenue of the city’s hotel and restaurant taxes ($13.5 million in 2014), which were set up to support the convention center. If the city were to take on the debt necessary to fund the renovations above, its yearly convention/stadium spending would increase to about $46 million per year. For comparison, in 2014 the city spent $49 million on health and welfare and $70 million on streets.
Spending hundreds of millions of public dollars and tying up the city in debt for decades to compete in the increasingly cutthroat convention center arms race is questionable policy. But what should be galling to city residents is the fact that, whatever had happened with the Rams, these upgrades would still be thought necessary. They would still cost hundreds of millions of dollars and still be public liabilities. If the Rams had been forced to remain in Saint Louis, city residents would have been committed to spending $150 million on a new stadium, only to be told that the city’s old stadiums needed $300 million themselves.
Sound policy would be to make sure we can afford what we have before we try to build something new. Regional leadership is taking the opposite approach.