CLAYTON — St. Louis County Council Chairwoman Rita Heard Days promised a final vote next week on a long-delayed bond package for the downtown convention center expansion, despite a council member sounding the alarm that a lack of building bids is blowing the project’s budget.
Days’ bill would finally advance a $105 million bond issue — half of a project the county shares with the city — that has been stalled for months.
The district’s share of bonds for the America’s Center expansion met opposition in late summer in the form of a lobbying campaign against Clayco founder Bob Clark’s convention center project. Around the same time, Days withheld final approval of the bonds, insisting that a plan for a recreation center in northern St. Louis County be put together as part of the bond package.
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The North County project was part of a 2019 deal with Days’ predecessor on the Council, Hazel Erby, for her support of the America’s Center expansion. But Convention and Visitors Commission (CVC) officials said they only agreed to fund it, not design and build it.
Days worked with Clayco and developer Larry Chapman – a former Clayco executive and longtime Clark collaborator – on a preliminary cost estimate for the North County Center. Under her bill, an additional $40 million in debt for the recreation center would be stapled to the $105 million bond issue.
Jeff Rainford, a Clayco lobbyist, said Clark is no longer fighting the convention center expansion and is working with Days to push the recreation center forward. “Some of us helped her to move this project forward. And through that, we’ve helped move the convention center forward,” he said.
Days appealed to other council members on Tuesday to support her bill. “I am asking for your support to move this forward because April 19 is an all or nothing event,” she said.
However, some council members were concerned that the plan did not yet have enough detail and asked for a committee meeting to get details such as the site and designs for the complex.
Councilman Ernie Trakas, a South St. Louis County Republican who has long opposed the convention center expansion, said during Tuesday’s council meeting that regional tourism officials should return to the council with the CVC to discuss questions about America’s expansion costs Center to discuss in the face of rising prices for labor and materials.
“I have absolutely reliable information that half of the city’s commitment to renovate the dome was tendered and that in response to their (call for proposals) they received a bid that was 50% higher than the allocated cost ‘ Trakas said Tuesday. “It is clear that the amount earmarked for the renovation of the dome is insufficient given the cost of labor and materials.”
Days did not hold a committee hearing on the bill with the additional binding authority, and she implied there was a double standard for projects in predominantly Black North County.
“Up to this point, not a single question has been asked about the $105 million that we’re giving[to the CVC],” Days said. “However, when I’m requesting $40 million for something that’s going to happen in the black community, something that’s going to happen in the first district, suddenly we have to jump through big hurdles to get that done… . That’s what you do when it comes to something in the African American community. That annoys me a lot.”
Trakas returned that he was disappointed that Days would “play the race card.”
“It has nothing to do with race. It has to do with the right process and procedure,” Trakas said. “I will not approve $40 million in bonds without knowing where this facility will be.”
The convention center expansion, first unveiled in 2018 but long delayed due to political muddles by city and county officials needed to approve it, could face cost issues after months of delays and construction cost inflation.
St. Louis has already issued its $105 million in bonds, and the city’s Board of Public Service, which manages public works projects, is bidding on the first half of the project while it awaits the county’s issuance of its bonds . Bids for the $83 million project were originally due March 1. Eventually that date was changed, and bids for the project were scheduled to open publicly on March 29.
But a spokesman for Mayor Tishaura O. Jones, who supports the project going ahead, said the city could not comment while the bidding is open. CVC President Kitty Ratcliffe said she could not comment on an open tender in the hands of the city.
When asked about Trakas’ comment, Ratcliffe said in a statement that Trakas “is wrong in his assumption that we’re renovating the Dome.”
Although Trakas said “Dome” in his comments, that was during the debate on bonds for the America’s Center expansion. The dome at America’s Center is connected to America’s Center.
In an interview, Trakas declined to reveal his source but maintained his concerns, expressed months ago, that costs in the construction industry were rising rapidly.
“It’s a different paradigm now in terms of construction costs, both in terms of labor and materials,” he said. “This offer clearly proves that. I think the whole project needs to be reconsidered.”
Days may have the votes to move forward with the binding authority. And St. Louis County Budget Director Paul Kreidler said Wednesday that he believes the county’s Hotel Tax Fund can cover the additional $40 million in debt for the North County Rec Center.
The expansion was to be funded with city and county hotel taxes, which became free after repayment of bonds used to build the Dome, where the NFL’s Rams played. The 2019 council bill dealing with the recreation center required the county to allocate 35% of its uncharged hotel taxes to the complex, and the pandemic’s slump in the revenue stream has slashed that number.
But Kreidler said Days’ new bill would eliminate the 35% figure, making the project a liability to the entire Hotel Tax Fund. And the county’s annual hotel taxes have risen again, he said, from a pandemic low of $5 million to about $9 million. They spent about $13 million before the pandemic.
“Looking at the fund balance and estimates for future revenue growth, I’m confident the fund can handle it,” Kreidler said. “Basically, it would mean that there would be no further projects against the hotel tax for about a decade. But it is possible to make those numbers work.”
Post-Dispatch’s Nassim Benchaabane contributed to this report.