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Breaking Down The 'Arch Tax'

Next Tuesday, you’ll have a chance to decide on Proposition P: a 3/16th of a cent sales tax increase which amounts to about two cents on a $10 purchase. The measure is often referred to as “the Arch Tax,” but the nickname doesn’t tell the whole story.

“Between 1995 and 2005, the Arch had about 3.3 million visitors a year," Ryan McClure with the CityArchRiver project told me as he walked me through the Arch grounds."Right now they’re averaging about 2.3.”

The decline is pretty evident. While we walked around, we saw a couple school buses and a few families, but the grounds were by no means busy. To be fair, it was a Friday afternoon and slightly chilly.

But McClure thinks that the CityArchRiver project can stop the trend in the declining number of visitors. The CityArchRiver project would change a lot of things. One of the biggest changes is connecting the arch to the rest of the city.

“What we’re approaching right now, the intersection of Memorial and Chestnut, particularly during rush hour, it’s really hard for people to get from the city side to the Arch side.”

McClure and his group say that connecting the city to the Arch is important -- it encourages visitors to explore and spend money in the city, instead of just using the nearby parking garage and leaving after a trip to the top of the Arch.

CityArchRiver has a lot of plans: putting a park over the highway to make it safer for pedestrians to cross ($36 million), renovating the Old Courthouse ($16 million), expanding the museum and exhibits ($164 million).

Altogether, the project is projected to cost $380 million. The funding comes from a variety of sources both public and private, but if Prop P goes through, the project would get $9.4 million a year from a new local sales tax. That money would go toward safety, pathway and infrastructure changes.

If you’ve heard about Prop P, you’ve probably heard it referred to as “the Arch Tax.” But the name is actually something of a misnomer. The largest chunk of change from the 3/ 16ths of a cent sales tax  wouldn’t go toward the Arch. CityArchRiver would get 30 percent of the revenue generated, another 30 percent goes to Great Rivers Greenway (a local trails development organization), but 40 percent goes to the city and county parks.

Below you can see the breakdown of where the money goes. It's based on a projected $31.4 million of increased revenue from the sales tax increase.

'Deferred Maintenance'

St. Louis County would get about 10 million dollars for its county and municipal parks. While the other groups might have more grandiose ideas on how to spend the money, County Parks Director Tom Ott says the County Parks has more mundane plans.

“We’ve got deferred maintenance," Ott said. "You asked about the status of the parks, and we’ve got deferred maintenance over the last 5 to 10 years because of our shrinking budget.”

Ott says he’s had to dip into the reserves. The money raised by Prop P would be huge, he says, but still wouldn’t put them into the range they were at a decade ago.

Not everyone is enamored with the thought of a new sales tax, however.

An 'Unnecessary Facelift'

“When you’re broke, you don’t ask for a facelift. And there isn’t anything wrong with the Arch,”  said Jennifer Bird, a Republican Committeewoman in the County who’s with the Vote No on Prop P campaign.

She wants to be clear that she’s not against prop p because she doesn’t like the parks. In fact, on the day I visited her at her home, she was planning on taking her kids sledding at the parks later that day.

“I’m not saying it’s all about me benefiting or not benefiting," Bird said. "What I’m saying is that it’s not a priority, and you’re going to appeal to a certain demographic, but where’s their return on investment?”

She points to a variety of other reasons why she’s against the sales tax: the county will pay more than it receives, there’s not enough oversight of the groups that get the money, and that it’s odd for local funds to go to a national park like the Arch. She also made a point that was echoed by a few aldermen in the city: that neighborhoods need more protection more than the parks need funding.

In order to go forward, the proposition has to pass in the city and county. The idea didn’t get any traction in St. Charles County, who elected to not have it on their ballot.

But back at the Arch, McClure with CityArchRiver says the changes are important. That it’ll bring in revenue and jobs, and that it’s important for how others see the city, and how the city sees itself.

“It’s ours. And I would say that it’s on us to take it upon ourselves the grounds that house the Arch.”

Follow Chris McDaniel on Twitter@csmcdaniel