Using Rams settlement for regional projects gains plaudits and criticism
Roughly a year aftera landmark settlement over the St. Louis Rams’ departure to Los Angeles, the parties involved in the lawsuit still haven’t agreed how to split up more than $500 million.
But after deciding to place the money in an account that garners more interest, some are warming to the idea of using the money for efforts that could help the entire St. Louis region. That could include placing the funds in something resembling an endowment — an idea that’s gotten a mixed reaction from policymakers.
“I really do think that we have an opportunity to turn this into a billion-dollar impact,” said Dave Spence, a member of the Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority board.
In November 2021, St. Louis, St. Louis County and the Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority, announced a $790 million settlement over the Rams’ exit from St. Louis. After deducting attorneys’ fees, there was a little over $500 million left for the three parties.
Since that time, there’s been behind-the-scenes negotiations on how to split the funds. Some St. Louis policymakers believe the city should get more money since, among other things, they were willing to help fund an unsuccessful stadium proposal to keep the Rams in St. Louis. But St. Louis County officials point out that county residents helped pay for the Dome, which the regional authority oversees and was the Rams home.
There’s been two notable developments in the settlement saga that some hope change the conversation around the money.
The first is that the parties agreed to put the funds in an account that garners more interest. Spence estimated that the amount of money will grow to around $519 million by January because of the decision. In a joint statement, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones and St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said the three parties agreed to put the “Rams settlement funds into a flexible, low-risk account at Commerce Bank, in line with other City of St. Louis funds.”
The second development involves a resolution that the RSA passed recently stating that after a certain amount of money is devoted to maintaining the Dome at America’s Center, the rest of the funds should “should be set aside and used in such a way that it maximizes the community benefit and creates a transformative, multi-generational impact on the St. Louis area.”
That’s somewhat similar to one of the ideas that Greater St. Louis Inc. floated about placing the funds in an endowment and then using the interest to fund projects that are beneficial to the entire St. Louis region. While RSA board member Joseph Blanner emphasized that his colleagues weren’t specifically endorsing the endowment idea, he added that it is one possibility that dovetails with the resolution’s philosophical approach.
“We were setting forth a goal,” Blanner said. “And the goal would be: You look back 10 or 15 or 20 years from now, and you want to say that we maximized the economic benefit for the St. Louis region utilizing those funds.”
There are two possible impediments to the endowment proposal.
The first is that Missouri places restrictions on where local governments can invest money. For instance, the Missouri State Investment Guide from Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick’s office says that “if an investment is not expressly authorized by Missouri law, a political subdivision should not invest in it.”
While Blanner acknowledged those restrictions, he added it's possible to find some sort of vehicle “that could still generate high enough interest rates that we’re still talking about a significant amount of money that would be put out in interest — even at very conservative investments that comply with statutes and investment policies.”
Blanner also said putting the money in a fund that could be used for projects that impact the whole region could solve the problem of how to divide the money between the city and the county.
“Our hope is that the narrative changes and we start discussing this goal that has been put forth not just by us, but by a lot of people within the community,” Blanner said. “Our hope is that the conversation starts the shift away from the ‘who gets what’ and starts focusing in on ‘what is our collective intent.’”
Others aren’t wild about the idea of not dividing the money between the city and the county, including St. Louis County Council Chairwoman Rita Days.
“I think there should be a division of the money and then let this council, as well as the Board of Aldermen, determine how they’re going to spend the money,” said Days, D-Bel Nor.
Days said she’s surprised that it’s taken so long to figure out how the money is going to be divided.
“And I really don't know what kind of formula they're looking at or how they're going to determine that,” Day said. “As the chair, I have not been apprised of the negotiations and how they're moving. So I don't know anything about how this is working and how it's going to play out.”
Doug Moore, a spokesman for Page, said in a statement: “We agree that using the funds as a long-term investment for the region is a good idea.
“When an agreement between the three parties is reached, we will share our recommendations for how to best use the funds with the council and look forward to working with them.”
Hancock and Green weigh in
Meanwhile, two recently elected officials have their own ideas on where the Rams money should go.
St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Megan Green has suggested that the Rams settlement could go for two initiatives: maintenance projects and assisting city residents with the cost of early childhood education.
She noted on a recent episode of the Politically Speaking podcast that the city has close to $500 million worth of deferred maintenance projects. She added setting aside a portion of the money “to just fund maintenance of projects on an annual basis, I think makes good sense long term for the city.”
Green also said that funding early childhood initiatives is critical, because the city has lost scores of families over the past couple of decades.
“It's extremely expensive to afford quality, early childhood education. And it's keeping a lot of folks out of the workforce,” Green said. “If we can invest in that from a really young age, then we're setting our kids up for success in the future, and it's going to pay dividends.”
St. Louis County Councilman-elect Dennis Hancock said it’s possible that the money could go toward improving St. Louis Lambert International Airport. That facility is located in St. Louis County but is owned by the City of St. Louis.
“Our airport doesn't measure up to other airports of similar size and similar traffic,” Hancock said. “We've seen and heard from enough of our business leaders over time that would indicate that the St. Louis airport is a detriment to attracting new businesses here and new employees here.”
Hancock also said it may be a good idea to use some of the funds to help bolster the region’s educational institutions and for efforts to attract and retain businesses throughout the region.
Spence, the vice president of the RSA, agreed that sprucing up the region’s airport is a worthwhile goal but added that a major project could be done with funds from both the federal government and airlines.
But he said, “If somebody has a great idea, I don't think anybody wants to turn down a conversation on a great idea.”
“Why don't we have an application process to vet those ideas?” Spence said. “And then, you know, really examine them? And then also ask those people who are bringing those ideas to have skin in the game, so to speak. And they contribute.”