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North St. Louis County rec center and St. Louis convention center funding approved

America Center
St. Louis Convention & Visitor’s Commission
The St. Louis County Council approved funding that would go toward expanding the America's Center in downtown St. Louis.

After months of delays, the St. Louis County Council on Tuesday approved funding for a new north county recreation center and its share of renovations to the downtown St. Louis convention center.

The council voted 6-1 to use $105 million in bonds to help expand the downtown convention center. The bill includes an additional $40 million in bonds to go toward the creation of a north St. Louis County recreation center.

“I look forward to working with the administration in terms of how they’re putting this together and offer my assistance if they need it,” said council Chair Rita Days, who sponsored the bill. “It is now in the hands of the administration to fulfill this project.”

The move puts the county in step with St. Louis to fund the expansion of the downtown center. The plan required both counties to pay for their share of the convention center work.

Approval comes afterthe St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that county and city officials approved a bid by Ben Hur Construction for the convention center that costs more than the initial plans for the first portion of the project.

The process to finalize the north county center’s funding has been the center of debate for the past few months. Councilman Ernie Trakas objected to the final bill, arguing that the rising cost to develop the first phase of the downtown center is a concern.

“That is only the beginning of this fiasco,” Trakas said. “If we pass this bill tonight, we are saying to our constituents, ‘We don’t care what happens to your money.’ We are telling the hardworking men and women in the hospitality industry, ‘We don’t care about your well-being.’”

Trakas called for the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission leadership to appear before the council to provide more details on construction costs.

Days had held back the county’s portion of funding, citing a 2019 agreement with Explore St. Louis and Days’ predecessor, Hazel Erby, that would put hotel-motel tax funds toward a north county recreation center.

Convention commission officials have said that the coronavirus pandemic had depleted the hotel-motel tax revenue and that the organization only agreed to help fund the center, not develop it.

Councilman Mark Harder also said he was concerned about costs for the downtown center, though he voted for it after Days said it was her understanding that the council would vote on the $105 million that was decided years ago.

“We’ve got a number of probably six to eight hurdles to go through on the rec center as this project develops in the next year or so,” Harder said. “I think the enthusiasm of this project will be the momentum that will make it through those opportunities.”

Councilman Tim Fitch said that costs could still change depending on inflation and supply chain issues and that the final cost could end up being less or more than the amount approved.

Details surrounding the rec center have yet to be announced, though St. Louis County leaders have requested that the University of Missouri-St. Louis study the possibility of the recreation complex at the school, according to university officials.

Councilwoman Lisa Clancy said that while she supports the bill, she had some concerns over the accessibility of a recreation center on UMSL’s campus.

“If it ends up at UMSL, will it be accessible for all to enjoy, we’ll figure those things out,” Clancy said. “I’m not going to stand in the way of this project, nor of moving forward on the convention center, which I know is also really important for this region.”

Community leaders and north county elected officials said a recreation center would be an asset for the community.

“Development of the north county rec center will directly benefit our young people, their families and a safe place for them to engage in organized extracurricular sports,” Vinita Park Mayor James McGee said. “North county has been neglected for too long, and we need something for our young people.”

The Rev. Darryl Gray, an activist and community leader, said that by supporting the north county center, all of St. Louis County will feel the effects.

“The area in which this community, sports, recreation center is being asked to be built could do so much,” Gray said. “If we make one part of the county healthy, the other part of the county’s going to be healthy.”

Follow Chad on Twitter: @iamcdavis

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.