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Proposal from St. Louis board would give another $15M to convention center expansion

America's Center in downtown St. Louis
Explore St. Louis
Expansion efforts at America's Center in downtown St. Louis are ongoing. Leaders are hoping to be finished with construction in 2025 but say an additional $30 million to $40 million is needed to cover rising costs.

More money is needed to cover expansion costs at America’s Center in downtown St. Louis, and a new bill introduced at a Board of Aldermen meeting Friday could provide an additional $15 million from pandemic relief funds to help cover costs.

Kitty Ratcliffe, president of Explore St. Louis, sought help during a special board meeting on Feb. 15, saying that $30 million to $40 million in additional funding is needed.

“If we can find the money to move forward and we can do it fast, we can get that part done in time for these important events that we’ve got coming in, in May and June of 2025,” Ratcliffe said.

Ratcliffe said last week that the $210 million obtained from the city and county previously for construction has been used up. The City of St. Louis owns the convention center complex, and the Dome is owned by the Regional Sports Authority, which is made up of the city, St. Louis County and the State of Missouri. Explore St. Louis is contracted to manage both.

The coordination team leading the construction project includes the Board of Public Service and representatives of the comptroller’s office, the city and the county. The Dome is currently not a part of expansion efforts, said Catherine Neville, a spokeswoman for Explore St. Louis.

In the initial Rams settlement agreement, $30 million was put toward convention center expansion efforts, and that money is now being used to cover rising construction costs at the center. After taxes and attorney fees, $519 million in settlement funds was split among the city, county and sports authority in November 2022.

St. Louis Alderwoman Cara Spencer of Ward 8 introduced a bill on Friday that would provide $15.3 million in accrued interest from American Rescue Plan Act funds to help with costs. This could help cover nearly half of the additional $40 million needed to complete construction.

Alderman Rasheen Aldridge, 14th Ward, convenes with Alderwoman Cara Spencer, 8th Ward, on Friday, Jan. 12, 2024, during a Board of Aldermen meeting at City Hall in downtown St. Louis. The Board voted 13-0 in support of Resolution 137, called on President Joe Biden to work towards a cease-fire.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Alderman Rasheen Aldridge, 14th Ward, convenes with Alderwoman Cara Spencer, 8th Ward, on Jan. 12 during a Board of Aldermen meeting at City Hall in downtown St. Louis.

A draft of the bill originally included $20 million in funding — $15 million from the pot of federal pandemic relief aid and $5 million in accrued interest from Rams settlement funds.

The board decided to use ARPA funds because city leaders are still gathering community feedback on how to spend the Rams settlement money, said Nick Dunne, a spokesman for St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones’ office.

“Unlike the Rams settlement funds, ARPA dollars have a deadline to be fully spent by 2026,” he said in an email.

The convention center is located in Spencer’s district, and she said it’s not clear right now what the city would get from a $20 million or $15 million investment.

“In order to fulfill promises the convention center made to folks, additional funding is required,” Spencer said. “The proposal for using the ARPA interest and Rams interest was put forth by the mayor’s office. I don’t think the Board of Aldermen right now is in a position to support the $20 million, so we introduced the $15 million [in ARPA] recognizing that there’s support of the board for that, that’s why I introduced it.”

She said the city was awarded its portion of Rams funds because the judge recognized a significant loss of revenue after the NFL team moved to Los Angeles in 2016. Spencer said that in light of this, the settlement money should be used to drive revenue for the city.

“Our city is hemorrhaging people, we are losing population at a faster rate than we probably have ever seen in our city’s lifetime,” said Spencer, who is also budget committee chair of the Board of Aldermen. “Unless we’re able to create a reason for people to come downtown, live in our city or spend money in our city, I don’t see how the city is going to survive.”

Spencer said she’s not opposed to providing a portion of the Rams money for convention center expansion, but she’d like a clear project list to show what the $5 million in accrued interest from Rams funds would cover.

The new board bill will soon get a hearing, but its prospects for passage are uncertain.

Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
The America's Center Convention Complex on Thursday in downtown St. Louis

Journey to expansion

Ratcliffe compared St. Louis’ convention center to the one in Indianapolis, which is on its sixth expansion and was built around the same time St. Louis’ complex was constructed in the 1970s. She also highlighted centers in Denver, Milwaukee and Nashville as comparison points.

Seattle just invested $2 billion in its convention center, Ratcliffe said. St. Louis’ convention center was voted the best in the Midwest in 2022, she added.

“We have a great city and a great product, we just need to work on making it a little bit better because 30 years is too long to be able to compete with other cities,” Ratcliffe said.

She touched on the impact of the convention center, which has brought in hundreds of millions of dollars and created numerous jobs in the city. In a recent survey, more than 90% of people had a positive impression of St. Louis after attending the convention center, she said, adding that it helps bolster the region’s economy by increasing revenue for the city.

Expansion efforts at America's Center in downtown St. Louis are ongoing as of February 2024. Leaders are hoping to be done with construction in 2025, but say an additional $30 to $40 million is needed to cover rising costs.
Explore St. Louis
Expansion efforts at America's Center in downtown St. Louis are ongoing. Leaders are hoping to be finished with construction in 2025 but say an additional $30 million to $40 million is needed to cover rising costs.

In 2013, mechanical equipment such as escalators, elevators, and coolers, and aesthetics that include seating areas and artwork were renovated and added to the center.

Outside of that, there hadn’t been any major expansion to the structure of the convention center in 30 years.

In December 2018, the Board of Aldermen passed an ordinance to fund half of the costs of the $210 million expansion and improvements to America’s Center, using hotel tax revenue that was freed up following the retirement of debt issued to build the Dome at the convention center, where the Rams used to play. Four months after that, the county council did the same.

“Unfortunately, things got in the way of being able to issue the bonds in a timely manner,” Ratcliffe said. “By the time the county issued their bonds, we were full on in the middle of a pandemic, which increased costs by 40% to 50% as supply chain issues mounted.

“So we found ourselves in a position where, if we’d done it on time when we had planned to, it would have been a $210 million project. But it no longer is today.”

The $210 million was supposed to cover the original project, which included adding a new exhibit hall to the west, a new lobby to access that hall, adding a new interior corridor connection to circulate people through the building and a new pre-function space that would open outside to a new outdoor event space.

It also includes improvements to the Washington Avenue entrance and conversion of two of the smaller existing exhibit halls into a new ballroom with a banquet kitchen, Ratcliffe said.

However, due to delays and cost increases during the pandemic, the project was split into two pieces — Project 1 and Project 2.

Project 1 began in 2022 and is nearing completion, Ratcliffe said. It includes doubling the number of loading docks, a new exhibit hall, the addition of a food farm and garden, and a new lobby at Martin Luther King Drive and 9th Street.

The $30 million in Rams settlement funds is helping cover some of those costs, as would the $15.3 million in ARPA money if approved. The money would also go toward improvements to the outdoor plaza.

Lacretia Wimbley is a general assignment reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.