Can St. Louis Really Support Another Performing Arts Facility? Local Government Certainly Thinks So
If I read the tea leaves correctly, I expect an announcement in the coming days, weeks, or months that the Kiel Opera House in St. Louis will soon commence an expensive — excuse me, extensive — renovation. That’s the only conclusion that I draw from the May 28 article in the St. Louis Business Journal, “SCP, McKees invest $2.9 million in Kiel Opera House.” The complexity of the deal appears staggering, but one fact is crystal clear: The project would simply never become a reality were it not for taxpayer largesse. Here is a brief outline of funding sources for the Kiel restoration, as identified in the May 28 article:
- An $11 million mortgage loan.
- A combined $2.9 million in developer equity.
- $12 million in equity from federal historic tax credits.
- $2.7 million in equity from New Markets Tax Credits.
- $12.4 million in state historic tax credit equity.
- $872,100 in Brownfield tax credit proceeds.
- $13.5 million in Series A bonds.
- $18.7 million in Series B bonds.
The above sources total more than $74 million, of which only $13.9 million appears remotely like private capital that flows independent of a government guarantee. Thinking about it, though, even the private mortgage loan has implicit public backing, because the project that it supports would not exist in the absence of a legislative quagmire of market distortion.
First, in 2009, Ordinance 68380 amended the city of St. Louis’ 5-percent gross receipts tax on ticketed entertainment productions, intending to incentivize the “owner, primary tenant, occupant or operator, or [a]ffiliate” of a “Contiguous Recreation Facility […] contiguous to a historic theatre, opera house or concert hall” to redevelop said historic theater for “$50,000,000-$99,999,999” (hyperlink added). The redevelopment would be subject to the following guideline:
- “[with] a redevelopment plan approved by the City by ordinance and a Redevelopment Agreement approved by the LCRA.”
Lo and behold, the development team for the upcoming Kiel Opera House renovation — which includes the ownership group for the St. Louis Blues hockey team and Scottrade Center — sought and received each of the above approvals. St. Louis Ordinance 68381 authorizes a redevelopment plan for the Kiel Opera House and affirms LCRA’s approval of the project.
St. Louis did not stop there, however, as Ordinances 68382, 68383, 68384, and 68385 collectively tweak the terms of a lease agreement on the city-owned Kiel Opera House facility, earmark funds from a previously approved Community Improvement District (Ordinance 68377) to support the Opera House’s redevelopment, and bring the entire legislative morass full circle by using taxes abated in accordance with Ordinance 68380 to provide debt service on the project’s city-issued bonds.
If the project’s bonds ultimately find buyers, then a combination of federal, state, and St. Louis taxpayers, hockey fans, and service users would foot the vast majority of the costs for restoring one of St. Louis’ architectural gems. Most will do so unwittingly, because St. Louis city does not examine, account for, or consider fiscal and economic impacts when passing legislation.
Please do not hear me wrong; the last thing that I want to see is another building sit vacant for decades on end. That said, I cannot cheer a rehabilitation project that relies so heavily on bloated and unwieldy allocations of taxpayer capital. Can Kiel Opera House return to life as “a 3,200-seat theater for concerts, Broadway shows, and family and holiday programs [with] four side banquet halls […] available for weddings, conferences and other events” in the absence of public subsidy?
I predict that Kiel’s future success — whatever form it may take — will come at the expense of other performing arts venues throughout the region. The failure of the Kiel project to attract private capital investment suggests to me that it may simply displace performance activities that would otherwise occur elsewhere, at privately supported venues throughout St. Louis.
Although there are strong arguments that markets tend to underproduce artistic work relative to growth in other sectors of the economy and that public subsidy can increase access to art and yield positive externalities, these arguments do not apply to the question of whether St. Louis city is underproducing space for such art downtown. At present, the vacancy rate in downtown’s myriad office buildings is nearly 19 percent, which means that competition for tenants is fierce and that already-low lease rates are falling still lower. Simply stated, the facilitation of architectural space is the last thing that St. Louis City needs to subsidize. Of Kiel’s proposed $74 million renovation cost, $43.4 million will go to the contractor and an indeterminate amount will fund professional services like attorneys’ and bond underwriters’ fees. None of the project’s costs will fund artistic production.
Many contend that tax credits create jobs. However, I see no evidence to suggest that they ever have or ever will.