On the Trail: Why a bid to publicly fund a soccer stadium faltered in St. Louis
Once St. Louis voters dashed his hopes of bringing Major League Soccer to the city, Dave Peacock didn’t make much of an attempt to modulate his tone.
“Well, I’m just pissed — I don’t care what these guys say,” said Peacock, who was part of the ownership group SC STL. “Losing sucks.”
It’s fair to say that lots of pro soccer fans shared Peacock’s salty sentiments after voters on Tuesday struck down Proposition 2, which would have put $60 million in taxpayer money toward building a stadium.
SC STL’s Jim Kavanaugh said there was no “Plan B,” and said Wednesday in a statement that the defeat is “likely the final stage of our journey.”
Both the vote totals and parting comments from supporters and detractors of Prop 2 paint a fairly clear picture of why it didn’t pass. Here are a few reasons why:
1. Stadium funding was deeply unpopular among the city's mobilized activists
On the surface, Prop 2’s demise was surprising. SC STL spent more than a $1 million, while opponents barely raised any cash to oppose the measure. But among the detractors were experienced political activists who’d been involved in Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones’ mayoral bid.
So it’s probably not much of a coincidence that Prop 2 fared particularly poorly in wards that Jones, who was vocally opposed to it, carried last month. In the 15th Ward, which includes the Tower Grove neighborhood, Prop 2 failed more than 20 percentage points. It went down by even larger margins in heavily African-American wards that both Jones and Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed won.
“I think people know, especially after the Rams deal, that taxpayers always lose on these publicly-financed stadiums,” 15th Ward Alderman Megan Green said. “And so if we’re looking at ways to grow the city and build our tax base, stadiums aren’t the way do it.”
2. Prop 2 underperformed in vote-rich south St. Louis
The measure also fared poorly in south St. Louis, a part of the city that Mayor-elect Lyda Krewson won decisively.
It failed outright in the 11th and 14th Wards, and barely won pluralities in the 12th and 13th Wards. There were also a lot of ‘no’ votes in places where the proposition succeeded, like the 16th and 23rd Wards.
This matters quite a bit, because south St. Louis wards hard particularly high turnout Tuesday. More than 50 percent of voters in the 16th Ward turned out — 1,762 of which voted against Prop 2.
Had stadium proponents held down margins on the south side, they may have been able to overcome the 3,240-vote margins of defeat.
But the measure didn’t even get a majority in the 28th Ward, a slice of the central corridor that Krewson represented on the Board of Aldermen.
3. Soccer backers faced a difficult reception from the state
When the stadium project was unveiled, state tax credits were a key part of its funding. But those plans were thrown for a loop after Gov. Eric Greitens’ denouncement of publicly funding stadiums.
Ultimately, Greitens expressed more comfort about forging some sort of deal to lease or transfer state land for the stadium project. But the lack of vocal support from the governor’s office likely wasn’t helpful, and may have solidified the idea that the facility would be paid for on the backs of city residents.
Kavanaugh said of Greitens: “I think the governor was focused on transitioning into office — and he had his focus on not funding public stadiums.
“I understand that and have no problem with that,” Kavanaugh continued. “I think they were willing to support us just like they were willing to support any other business that came to St. Louis or came to the state of Missouri that’s going to create jobs and economic activity.”
4. It was a choice between city services and stadiums
When Glenn Burleigh stepped to the lectern at a February committee hearing, he laid out a particularly strong argument against Proposition 2, which took proceeds from a use tax on out-of-state purchases and directed it toward the stadium.
Burleigh, who for years has helped out Democratic political campaigns, noted the use tax goes toward things like affordable housing, public safety and public health. Voting for Prop 2, he said, meant voters were choosing stadiums over vital social services.
That struck a nerve with a lot of people, including African-American elected officials like Alderman Terry Kennedy,who questioned how a stadium would help areas of the city struggling with crime and depleted services.
“I think that voters sat back, they looked at the actual budget, they considered things in a realistic way – and they made the proper decision for the city from a financial basis,” Burleigh said Tuesday.
City residents did approve a half-cent sales tax increase for things like expanding the Metro Link and funding public safety programs. That also raised the use tax, which, since Proposition 2 failed, will go toward the programs people like Burleigh contend are bigger priorities.
5. There was no county help
The division between St. Louis and St. Louis County clearly played a role in the outcome, Kavanaugh said Tuesday night. Even Proposition 2 supporters like Phil Grooms were disappointed that only St. Louis residents were going to be on the hook.
“Listen, I’ve got a lot of anger right now welling up inside of me and a lot of it is directed at the county not participating,” said Grooms, the managing editor of STL Soccer Report. “And maybe it’s not just the county’s fault. But a lot of it is just the fact that our region … did not take part in this whatsoever. Three hundred thousand citizens inside of a million and whatever number citizens should have been part of this.”
Getting St. Louis County involved wouldn’t have been an automatic prospect. County Executive Steve Stenger would have had to get a proposal through a hostile County Council. He was also adamant that the measure go to county voters — and it’s highly possible they also wouldn’t have been keen on publicly funding the stadium.
Regardless of the structural barriers, Prop 2 proponents like Jarred Irby said county participation may have allayed concerns among city residents. Now that an MLS team is likely off the table, he still thinks the sport has a strong presence, and a strong future, in St. Louis.
“As far as the overall aspect of the city being doomed, I hope that a soccer stadium wouldn’t be the large marker of the fate our city,” Irby said. “I mean, soccer definitely takes up a large part of my life. It takes up a lot of weekends. It takes up a lot of my weekdays. Most of my adult friends I’ve met come through the soccer community.
“For them, it’s something that they love and they would like to see it grow to that level,” he added. “I definitely think it would be great for everybody in this city to experience it.”
St. Louis does have a professional team that area residents can watch — Saint Louis FC of the United Soccer League, which plays in the county.
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.
Follow Jason on Twitter:@jrosenbaum