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Could soccer stadium backers have avoided a gubernatorial hurdle?

Gov.-elect Eric Greitens' opposition to publicly funding a St. Louis soccer stadium may be placing the city's Major League Soccer bid in jeopardy.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Gov.-elect Eric Greitens' opposition to publicly funding a St. Louis soccer stadium may be placing the city's Major League Soccer bid in jeopardy.

When those who are working to bring Major League Soccer to St. Louis rolled out their stadium proposal, it seemed as though everything was in its right place.

The ownership group known as SC STL included people with experience with top-flight sports franchises. Many of the region’s top leaders were on board with the proposal. And in stark contrast to the failed bid to keep the St. Louis Rams, this group promised a public vote before any taxpayer funds were expended in St. Louis.

What soccer stadium proponents apparently didn’t foresee was what Gov.-elect Eric Greitens had to say.

“I was elected to put an end to business as usual,” Greitens said at a press conference earlier this week. “And I do not support welfare for millionaires. I support investing in the core priorities of the people of the state of Missouri.”

In this particular case, Greitens’ words are more than just rhetoric. The Republican official has the ability to nix $40 million in state tax credits that people like St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed says are critical to the project. He says the uncertainty over the tax credits will “absolutely affect” an aldermanic effort to put a stadium funding plan on the ballot.

“Without the state’s piece coming, in effect, the deal is dead – I think the deal is over,” Reed said.

But a bigger question could be why state tax credits were included as a critical aspect of the project’s funding in the first place.

'Wait until we have a governor they can trust'

Some officials, including St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, have said they were surprised when Greitens released a statement opposing publicly funding the soccer stadium. But the truth is that Greitens’ stance is hardly new.

Back in November 2015, I sent out several questions to Missouri’s major gubernatorial candidates about a bid to build a publicly financed stadium riverfront stadium aimed at keeping the Rams here. Greitens’ response was hardly ambiguous: He said the “stadium scandal” was the “epitome of what's wrong with Jefferson City's culture of corruption.” After he stated he “opposed welfare for billionaires,” Greitens said the legislature should “zero out the current line item for stadium funding and wait until we have a governor they can trust not to burden generations of Missouri's children with stadium debt.” 

A rendering of the proposed St. Louis soccer stadium.
Credit HOK
A rendering of the proposed St. Louis soccer stadium.

So it was pretty clear that Greitens was not wild about publicly funding stadiums. Still, afterSC STL unveiled its plan a little more than a week after Greitens was elected governor, its funding plan detailed within documents sent to the Missouri Development Finance Board included state tax credits. That brings up the question of why SC STL would come up with a stadium funding plan that includes state incentives when the governor who could kill them is on record against publicly funding stadiums?

“One, there were attempts to have some meetings after the primaries and before the election. Those meetings never came to bear. Not surprising,” said Dave Peacock, who is on the executive board of SC STL. “When you’re in a campaign, you’re busy. We respected that. We did have discussions with people close to him that gave an indication that this would be an appropriate path, at least to start down. And that situation changed.

“And once we heard otherwise, we withdrew the application and said ‘we want to work with you,’” he added. “I mean, at the end of the day, we’ve been transparent. We said we want to work with people, not around people.”

(For what it's worth, Gretiens' senior adviser Austin Chambers disputed the aforementioned characterization in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)

What Peacock was referring to was how SC STL wanted the Missouri Development Finance Board to approve tax credits. Gov. Jay Nixon has appointed most of that board’s current membership. But Greitens can fill most of the MDFB with his appointees upon taking office, which made SC STL's decision to hold off getting the credits approve significant.

Nixon offered a practical explanation for why state tax credits were included in the plan: They make it more cost-effective to clear the site for development, whether that is a stadium or not.

“I don’t think cleaning up a site is a stadium,” Nixon said. “If you think removing roads and cleaning trash off a site and making it developable is a stadium, it’s not. This is the preparation work that’s necessary for economic development so that you can then move forward. I see those as entirely different things.”

Hazy path forward

Gubernatorial frustrations aside, the fact remains that soccer stadium backers have a big funding hole. And there aren’t that many obvious alternatives. 

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger
Credit File photo | Alex Heuer | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger said nobody from SC STL has talked with him about the county participating the funding plan.

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger said he hasn’t talked with anybody from SC STL. And he emphasized that the county wasn’t going to offer its taxpayer dollars out of the goodness of its heart without being consulted. (Even if the county were asked to contribute, there’s no guarantee that any proposal would make it through the St. Louis County Council or be approved at the ballot box.)

“One of the assumptions in your question is that I’m supposed to offer up St. Louis County taxpayer money when it’s not asked for – and that’s not going to happen,” Stenger said in response to a reporter query on the topic. “This is something that we would have to analyze, look at – it’s just that simple. But it’s not something that’s going to be offered. I mean, I don’t think that’s appropriate at all. ... We’re not going to offer county taxpayer dollars for something that’s located in the city and that we don’t have any idea of what the terms of the proposal are.”

Peacock said on Tuesday that there had been “very preliminary” discussions with St. Louis County. He said in December that SC STL expected county residents to contribute more indirectly.

“The city needs people coming to visit,” Peacock said. “The city needs both regional people coming down for events and people from out of town. That is a key contributor to the city’s economy. And this can be a part of that. And so while the county isn’t participating from a tax standpoint, if you assume that the majority of the people visiting the stadium are actually supplying the revenues that are generating the taxes to support the investment, in some respects they are. They’re just doing that through a different form.

“That’s kind of the logic behind it,” he added.

In any case, Greitens met with SC STL on Thursday – but emphasized that he's still opposed to using state tax dollars to fund the stadium proposal.

"They had an open, frank, and constructive exchange," said Chambers in an e-mail to St. Louis Public Radio. "He remains opposed to using state funding to build the soccer stadium. The Governor-elect welcomes and supports efforts to bring economic development and jobs to the state of Missouri. He looks forward to continuing this discussion." 

In a statement, SC STL's Jim Kavanaugh said his group was "very pleased" to meet with Greitens "to share our plans and personally learn more about his vision for Missouri as our future governor."  

"It was a very productive meeting," he said. "Gov.-elect Greitens, his team and our group are all interested in exploring how this can become a win-win for everyone involved.  We join Gov.-elect Greitens in his sentiments toward continuing the discussion."

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.