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Why promises of a north county rec center are stalling St. Louis’ convention center expansion

America's Center in Downtown St. Louis.
File photo / Jason Rosenbaum
St. Louis Public Radio
America's Center in Downtown St. Louis.

The planned $210 million expansion of the convention center in downtown St. Louis has hit a major snag: an impasse over past promises to support a recreation center in north St. Louis County.

The St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, also known as Explore St. Louis, needs St. Louis County to authorize bonds to pay for the expansion of America’s Center. (The city did its part last year.) But St. Louis County Council Chair Rita Heard Days has been holding up the county’s authorization. She says the commission needs to make good on a 2019 agreement to use hotel tax funds to develop a recreation center in her district.

Kitty Ratcliffe, president of Explore St. Louis, insists the agreement only required the organization to help fund the rec center with up to 35% of unencumbered funds from the city’s hotel tax — not develop it.

And now, she said, there are no extra funds. Hotel tax revenue dropped precipitously during the pandemic.

“Explore St. Louis has taken an enormous hit from the pandemic,” Jacob Kirn, economic development editor of the St. Louis Business Journal, explained on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air. “They're operating, I think [Ratcliffe] said, still with 60% of its previous staffing level. So they themselves, she says, do not have money to do something like this.”

Kirn broke the story in August of Days’ refusal to bring the bond issuance to a vote. Since then, Days has received support from the St. Louis chapter of the NAACP, which criticized the “disenfranchisement and segregated funding decision making” of convention center backers. The organization also suggested it would publicize its previous “travel advisory” warning Black people to stay away from Missouri if the recreation center isn’t funded.

Days declined an invitation to appear on St. Louis on the Air to discuss the situation. In a statement, she made her intransigence clear.

“We will not allow this commitment to deteriorate into another broken promise for our community,” she wrote. “A commitment was made, and the expectation is that it will be honored. There is plenty of room to make both projects a reality. I stand ready to act when clearer heads prevail.”

America’s Center expansion hits a major snag: an impasse over a north county rec center
Jacob Kirn of the St. Louis Business Journal explains the impasse.
St. Louis Business Journal editor Jacob Kirn joined Monday's talk show.

Ratcliffe told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the region would lose $100 million if the project was delayed just six months. Kirn noted that details on those calculations have not been made public.

“What was missing from that analysis or threat, if you wanted to use that term, was the names of the conventions that we could lose,” he noted. “We didn't get names. And we also didn't necessarily get math, in terms of economic impact. ... And often, these convention tourism agencies do rely on consultants that they pay to try to attempt to quantify how big a tourism impact is for a certain area, often in the service of justifying these types of expansion projects.”

Still, he added: “There's no doubt that, especially downtown, is heavily dependent on these types of events. There's really no question.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.