Rams Move Exposes Broken Policymaking Process in Saint Louis
Think back to December, 2014, not long after the tragic events in Ferguson. Everyone had an opinion about what was wrong with the Saint Louis area, what could turn the city around, and where to invest. Who thought that our biggest problem was whether or not we had enough sports teams? Did anyone suggest that our first priority, both politically and fiscally, should be an improved NFL facility? Of course not. Still, any objective observer would have to conclude that the push to build a new stadium was the regional leadership’s main focus in 2015.
Consider what that focus, mostly from the Governor’s and Mayor’s offices, accomplished. The plan to spend some $400 million on another stadium in downtown Saint Louis faced significant opposition. Most state legislators were not in favor of state support for the plan. Both the city and county had ordinances requiring votes before public money could be used on a stadium, and the public’s support was anything but guaranteed. The Saint Louis City Board of Aldermen was divided.
But that didn’t stop the committed leadership. The governor and the RSA moved to unilaterally extend state support, cutting out the antagonistic legislature. The RSA sued the city and succeeded in getting the ordinance requiring a public vote struck down. When the county executive said they’d have a vote with or without an ordinance, the Governor’s stadium task force dropped Saint Louis County out of the funding scheme. After lengthy negotiations, the Saint Louis City Board of Aldermen signed off on the stadium financing plan.
The only obstacle stadium backers did not overcome was the resolve of Rams’ ownership to move the team, which was ultimately decisive. If Saint Louis’s regional leadership had had their way, taxpayers would be handing hundreds of millions of dollars to Stan Kroenke. The only thing that saved Saint Louis residents from making a terrible investment of public dollars were the votes of thirty NFL team owners.
The “accomplishments” of the stadium task force expose what’s broken in Saint Louis regional governance. Common-sense reforms, like simplifying the city’s business code, languish in the Board of Aldermen. The sewer system is so out of date that city streets have a habit of collapsing. Fire and police departments are so broke they are using duct tape to fix equipment. No one has answers for a continuing lack of safety throughout the metropolitan area. With these problems, there is little will to push through change, and there is never enough money.
But when the NFL might leave town, suddenly regional leaders found $400 million between the seat cushions for yet another big-bang development project. And the political will was there too, no matter how the public felt about it—and regardless of the sad history of similar projects in the city, and all the economic evidence saying it was a bad idea. That’s how the region’s policymaking process played out, with misplaced priorities and half-hearted respect for the democratic process. With that kind of leadership, is it any wonder Saint Louis has a lagging economy?