St. Louis Sports Online

Eric Niederhoffer 

St. Louis SportsOnline

columnist & principal photographer

Stadium Wars: Threat or Bluff? 28 May 2003

My first column concerning the proposed new stadium for the St. Louis Cardinals was posted 9 July 2000.

Since the time of the announcement, I have commented and reported on the pros and cons of building a new stadium and the impact of that activity on the St. Louis area.

We have also seen and heard the Cardinals organization lobby the City of St. Louis, St. Louis County, State of Missouri and citizens and fans of Major League Baseball for support of their concept to improve the national pastime in the Gateway City.

Recall that the original design called for a new stadium along with a downtown development denoted as Ballpark Village. The idea was to create a mixed use area that would bring people back to downtown. But how would this concept be financed?

The Cardinals owners would contribute $120 million to the $370 million project, with the bulk of the investment to come from government offices. At the time of the proposal, the price tag on Ballpark Village was not stated and details remained scant.

Over the past two years, the courting of public investment became heated. The City and State searched their pockets and found that they had no money. The Cardinals began to talk of looking elsewhere and toying with moves from downtown to St. Charles or East St. Louis. Ballpark Village was pulled from the table. Put up the money or shut out any notion of remaining just north of 64/40. The City stood its ground hoping that the legislature might come to the rescue. The legislature amended bills to provide for restitution should the Cardinals decide to vacate and break their long-term lease.

Was this a serious threat or a good poker bluff?

Did the Cardinals have all their ducks lined up?

In the Fall of 2002, the Cardinals put out a call for private investors to build and then lease to them a stadium. Clearly something had changed besides the fact that interest rates had dropped to lows not seen in recent years. An Washington firm was hired to find private investors for the Cardinals. Not too long after that, the Cardinals fired that firm because the federal government had begun an investigation concerning alleged ties to terrorist groups.

A recent announcement by the Cardinals on their MBL website suggests another change. Under the heading "CARDINALS TO REPLACE BUSCH STADIUM: Privately Financed and Privately Owned Ballpark to be built in Downtown St. Louis" we are told that "the St. Louis Cardinals are moving forward with plans to build a new $325 million, privately financed and privately owned ballpark to replace Busch Stadium, as well as develop an adjacent $250 million mixed-use, five block neighborhood called Ballpark Village."

I quote further because I think the statements that appear on the website are important.

"With the total investment expected to exceed $650 million, this project would be one of the largest private development projects in the history of the St. Louis region. The new ballpark and Ballpark Village will be a source of pride for Cardinals fans and local residents. The new ballpark and Ballpark Village will add vitality to our downtown, help spur additional private investment in St. Louis and have a positive economic and cultural impact on the region."

And here's a kicker.

"In an era where most sports facilities are built with huge public subsidies, this proposal is unique. The ballpark will be privately owned and privately financed. The Cardinals are obligated to contribute $50 million up front and enter into a lease with a minimum term of 29 years that will obligate the team to pay annual rent that on average exceeds $14 million per year. The team will be further obligated to pay for all ballpark maintenance, operational expenses and capital improvement expenses."

Now it seems to me, the Cardinals have taken a different approach. There is one significant difference from the original postings.

They are still seeking or have found private funding.

This is a major plus for the organization. Because the Cardinals are using private money, they get to call more of the shots with less interference from government agencies. Bravo!

There is less mention of the City of St. Louis and no mention of the State of Missouri or nearby East St. Louis. There is little reason to discuss parties not associated with the funding of the project.

The Cardinals are putting up $50 million, down from the $120 million (which included the value of the land to be used) in the original proposal. Total stadium costs have decreased from $370 to $325 million.

But one aspect strikes me as strange.

Where was the local media? Was the website announcement meant for small-scale distribution? A search of revealed no information regarding the matter.

Should this information be true and accurate then the Cardinals tried to be cool poker players. Dramatic bluffers with the City of St. Louis, St. Louis County and State of Missouri. Their threats about leaving the City proved to be empty ones but we may never know how close we came to losing a MLB team to our neighbors. Very few people saw their financial books. In the long run this may be the best arrangement for the Cardinals because they get to make decisions as to how best to spend private investments.

And in the long run, isn't this the best thing for the organization? A reasonable role for local government? Allow private individuals and companies to operate within a framework that does not discriminate against the participants. Provide reasonable incentives for economic development with no unreasonable barriers.

We will just need to wait and see if all the facts have been reported. When they indeed get reported.


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