ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. – A solution to the last-minute delay for long-awaited America’s Center expansion may lie in a new indoor track and field facility in North St. Louis County.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are on the line for St. Louis.
The $210 million convention center (America’s Center) expansion would add a new plaza, pavilion, and ballroom, plus more than 90,000 square feet of exhibit space to be operated by the convention and visitors commission, known as Explore St. Louis.
“A convention center brings new people to the community who don’t live here but bring a whole lot of money with them … overall it’s an infusion of cash that we as a community don’t get any other way,” Explore St. Louis President Kitty Ratcliffe said.
“What I hear is ‘why can’t we be more like Nashville or Indianapolis. We’re not Denver.’ All of those cities made the investments we’re not making. We should have done this with the convention center 10 years ago.”
It wasn’t possible then because the St. Louis Rams lease required dome upgrades, she said. The team is now gone and this is the final year for payments on dome bonds but revenues from hotel taxes to fund the dome continue.
Both the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County agreed a long ago to equally fund the expansion but St. Louis County Council Chairwoman, Rita Days, is now holding up a vote on the actual bonds. North County was promised a new community center as part of the deal, she said.
“We want to make sure that we have the dollars to have this building built, this facility built, period,” Days told Fox 2 news.
Former St. Louis County Councilwoman, the late Hazel Erby, struck a deal with Explore St. Louis in 2019 to set aside a portion of excess hotel tax revenues (“dome dollars”) for a project in North County.
“As there was growth in the fund and there was excess, she wanted 35% of it to be dedicated towards building a facility in her community,” Ratcliffe said.
“We agreed with that as long it was something that would generate new tourism activity per the statute.”
State law says such funds can only be used for “regional convention and tourism purposes.” So, Explore St. Louis hired consultants to perform what is called a ‘gap analysis’ to identify a niche that would bring tourists into North County.
They identified a new, state of the art, track and field facility for regional, even national competitions.
Days is on board with the idea but won’t yield on a new community center.
“Clearly you can have an indoor track facility and you can have these other things added on to that,” she said.
It’s unclear whether dome funds earmarked for tourism under state law can be used for a neighborhood community center. Ratcliffe points out those funds do not belong to Explore St. Louis.
It’s simply the appointed ‘gatekeeper’ for them.
Days is now forming a review committee of city, county, and convention officials to iron out all details of plans for North County before there’s any vote on bonds for convention center expansion. She believes such a committee can act very quickly.
The economic windfall from the expansion far exceeds the investment and the region stands to lose at least $100,000 in convention business if the expansion isn’t completed on time in 2023, Ratcliffe said.