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After months of delays, expansion of St. Louis America’s Center is underway

From left: Tony Thompson, chief executive officer of the Kwame Building Group, County Executive Sam Page, and Mayor Tishaura Jones listen to speakers
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Tony Thompson, left, chief executive officer of the Kwame Building Group; St. Louis County Executive Sam Page; and St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones listen to speakers Tuesday at the groundbreaking for the expansion of America's Center.

An expansion to the America’s Center in downtown St. Louis, which leaders say is long overdue, is finally underway.

“I’m ecstatic,” Kitty Ratcliffe, president of Explore St. Louis, the region’s convention and visitors commission, said at a groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday. “We’re taking a 45-year-old convention center and making it competitive with the cities that have much newer and much bigger buildings.”

The biggest part of the $210 million project is a new 72,000-square-foot exhibit space. The loading docks will be reconfigured and expanded, and a new entrance will be built at 9th Street and Martin Luther King Drive.

The changes are needed to sustain the region’s convention business, said Mayor Tishaura Jones. The convention center last underwent a major upgrade in 1993, and events have bypassed St. Louis in recent years because of a lack of space and amenities.

“These kinds of events are more than just a source of pride for St. Louis,” she said. “They create $265 million in economic activity for our city, our state and our region.”

Ratcliffe thanked the staff at Explore St. Louis, who “waited years for me to get this done, wondering what it would take for people to understand that St. Louis was losing ground every year that we did nothing.”

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page called the expansion project a good example of “regionalism and collaboration.”

“The hospitality industry has greatly suffered over the past two years, and getting this project started is an important boost to our continued recovery,” he said.

Officials in St. Louis and St. Louis County first reached a deal on the $210 million in upgrades in 2019. The bonds sold to pay for construction are to be covered by the hotel tax paid by guests, which was previously directed to paying off the debt for the Dome. (The Dome, which is owned by a separate entity, is not part of this expansion.)

But the coronavirus pandemic meant hotel tax revenue dropped by more than 50% in the city, and concerns about how the bonds would be funded if the hotel tax did not rebound led city officials to delay the approval of their share of the bonds.

Then, the chair of the St. Louis County Council, Rita Days, D-Bel Nor, delayed approval of the county’s share of the bonds in a dispute over a promised recreation center in North County. The council added bonds for the rec center to the convention package and voted to move forwardin April.

Meanwhile, costs ballooned because of supply chain issues. But Ratcliffe said she is not concerned about having enough money to finish construction.

“Everybody bid high,” she said of the contractors and subcontractors on the project. “And now they can figure out when they order the materials what the real costs are.”

Work on the first phrase of the expansion must be completed by February 2024.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.