By TIM ROWDEN
Downtown St. Louis – Plans to expand and upgrade the America’s Center in downtown St. Louis picked up steam recently as the St. Louis County Council voted 4-3 along party lines to help finance the $175 million expansion project.
The St. Louis Board of Aldermen voted 21-3 in December to approve the city’s contribution to the project, which calls for the fund used to service the debt issued in 1991 to finance the Dome at America’s Center — built for the Rams, who left the city in 2016 — to be used to pay off new, 40-year bonds issued for the expansion after the Dome’s debt is retired in 2021. The $6 million per year payment will come from revenue raised by the county’s hotel-motel tax.
The expansion will include the addition of 92,000 square feet of exhibit space, a 65,000-square-foot ballroom and meeting area and 22,000-square-feet of support space, as well as an additional 26 loading docks, renovations of the 12 original docks, an outdoor pavilion and the refurbishment of the central Washington Avenue entrance.
The County Council also approved funding for a recreation complex in bill sponsor Hazel Erby’s district in north St. Louis County.
Council Democrats Sam Page, Lisa Clancy and Rochelle Walton Gray joined Erby voting in favor of the expansion. Republicans Ernie Trakas, Mark Harder and Tim Fitch voted no.
‘THIS IS HUGE’
“This is huge,” Pat White, president of the St. Louis Labor Council said.
“We compete with conventions from Indianapolis all the way out to Denver. All of these places, from Denver all the way in, whether it’s Nashville, Louisville or Indianapolis, they’ve all redone their convention centers. Ours hasn’t been redone in years. We built a stadium, that idiot (Stan) Kroenke moved his team out, and now we’ve got it sitting down there doing nothing. And we’re losing out on conventions.
“O’Reilly Auto Parts, which is actually a home state company, outgrew us. They like St. Louis; they liked to have their conventions at the convention center, but they outgrew it. The First Robotics Convention, which was huge, outgrew us. This is a very well-needed expansion to compete with the other cities in the Midwest.”
MILLIONS IN REVENUE
Kitty Ratcliffe, president of Explore St. Louis, said the America’s Center expansion is needed to compete with other cities that have invested heavily in their convention and visitors centers in recent years and now are reaping the benefits to the detriment of St. Louis.
Indianapolis recently invested $275 million in its facilities while Nashville invested $623 million and San Antonio invested $325 million.
“We’re competing against four or five other cities,” Ratcliffe said at the first Management/Labor Breakfast hosted by the Entertainment and Event Alliance of St. Louis (EEASL) on April 3.
EEASL is an alliance of union locals that provide workers for the music, theater, broadcasting, motion picture, convention, event services and hospitality industry. It includes IBEW Local 1 (Electricians), IBEW Local 4 (Broadcasting and Recording), IATSE Local 6 (Stagehands), IATSE Local 143 (Projectionists), IATSE Local 493 (Missouri Studio Mechanics), IATSE Local 805 (Wardrobe-Hair-Makeup), Musicians Local 2-197 AFM, SAG-AFTRA (Performers and Broadcasters), Teamsters Local 600 (Convention and Trade Shows), Teamsters Local 610 (Misc. Drivers and Healthcare), United Scenic Artists USA 829, Unite Here Local 74, and USW Local 39 (Decorators and Displaymen).
Ratcliffe said attendees to conventions and other events at the America’s Center, spend an average of $265 million annually in the community.
“This building really is the front door to our community,” Ratcliffe said. “And there are many, many impacts that this building has on our regional economy.
“Every attendee to a convention is going to come here with $1,000 or $1,500 or $2,000 that they’re going to spend on four or five nights in a hotel; they’re going to spend on restaurants; they’re going to spend on transportation,” Ratcliffe said. “That’s real money that comes into our community every single week if we can do our job, that isn’t going to come any other way.
“And that money spreads throughout the community. It puts people to work, it supports businesses. And it has some ancillary effects because when we have those big events, we have to go out and buy goods and services and buy food products, and we put people to work as well.”
Ratcliffe said the America’s Center spends an average $14 million annually on goods and services from local businesses to service its operations and events.
“It’s not just a benefit in the City of St. Louis, even though the building is in the city,” Ratcliffe said. “A lot of the people who are working here are county residents, they’re not just city residents. A lot of the businesses that we buy services from are not just city businesses, they’re county businesses and from throughout the region.
“When we have an event at the convention center, every hotel in the area sees a lift in their occupancy and the rate that they’re able to charge because there’s a greater demand in the community. When a convention comes to town, if they’re using 3,000 rooms or 4,000 rooms or 5,000 rooms, the majority of those might be downtown but because downtown occupancy is higher and the rooms are sold-out every hotel in this region feels a lift. The occupancy for the hotels, the average daily rate that the hotels charge, including Collinsville and St. Charles see a lift when we have an event here. This really is the front door to our community.”
One example of the broader impact of having a thriving convention center complex, Ratcliffe said, is the revival that has taken place on Washington Ave. in St. Louis, which today is loaded with home to numerous restaurants and popular night spots that benefit from their proximity to the America’s Center.
“They’re not there because of the downtown workers,” Ratcliffe said. “They’re there because the Convention Center was expanded to the south the early 1990s. The entrance to the Convention Center before that was on Convention Plaza. In the 1980s, Washington Ave. was a place we would never take our customers because a majority of the buildings were empty. It’s a very different place today.”