Not Such E-Z Terms for the E-Z Hotel

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen have passed a bill funding the new convention-center hotel, but many of the lawmakers aren't very happy with their handiwork; plus, other St. Louis follies and foibles

Once bills for the convention-hotel financing passed on Friday, the suits on the fringes of the Board of Aldermen assembly room exited like so many moneychangers rushing out of the temple, though this time there was no pissed-off Jesus chasing them with the threat of damnation. Instead, left behind were somewhat confused and altogether unenthused aldermen who had just approved a revised $242.2 million funding package. Even with voting margins of 24-2 and 24-3, several warned ominously that this was it, that they weren't going to approve one more dime for the Next Big Thing: the downtown convention-center hotel.

Despite the apparent support, not all was well in the days leading up to the meeting. At a Thursday press conference about the hauling of nuclear waste through the city (which he came out against), Mayor Clarence Harmon was asked whether there was a financing deal yet on the hotel. With a brusque reply of "If there was one, I wouldn't tell you," Harmon walked away from the podium and back into his chambers, with no other comment. A Board of Estimate and Apportionment meeting to sprinkle the holy water on the deal, set for Friday morning, was postponed. Later that day, Harmon addressed the aldermen, telling them it was time for all to be "statesmen." Comptroller Darlene Green -- like Harmon, making a rare appearance before the board -- tried to convince the aldermen that the last-minute compromise on the financing bills needed further examination, but it didn't happen. Perhaps the fact that at least $95 million of the deal will be financed by empowerment-zone bonds, called "E-Z bonds" by some, made it sound less painful.

The most recent obstacle was a $12 million gap that opened when the AFL-CIO Building Investment Trust decided the hotel wasn't worth the risk to its members' money. The setback was just the latest since Harmon's announcement last June that the hotel deal had been inked ("The Big Fix," RFT, Nov. 10, 1999). At that time, the unions had agreed to invest $30 million in the project. Several aldermen wondered aloud what sway the unions should have in negotiating with the hotel operators for union representation when they hadn't seen fit to help finance the deal. Ald. Stephen Gregali (D-14th), long a union backer, defended the unions' decision, though his on-the-floor comments triggered some not-for-attribution criticism from other aldermen.

"This is bullshit. That hotel is a nightmare. This may be the worst thing we've done in a long time," says one of Gregali's colleagues. "What blew me away was when the unions cut back their money and Gregali gets up and says, 'The unions have different standards; the unions have a fiduciary responsibility.' If you look up the definition of a 'fiduciary,' it's someone who exercises 'reasonable and prudent care.' What he was saying was, the unions were doing that but the 28 alderman are not."

Under the revised funding plan approved by the board, the city agrees to increase its direct commitment to the hotel from $74.7 million to $80.7 million -- or fully one-third of the project's total cost. Part of that commitment will be repaid with the use of future Community Development Block Grant dollars, money that would otherwise flow to the city's poor. According to the city, the hotel owner, which includes a subsidiary of Kimberly-Clark, will cough up $6 million if the city can't shake loose any more empowerment-zone money.

More than a few aldermen, it appears, held their noses and voted for the convention hotel -- that may have been the only way the deal passed the smell test. There was little joy among the aldermen after the vote, and many resorted to anonymous grousing, a sure sign that their public behavior, in voting yes, conflicted with their private belief that the financing of the convention-center hotel sucks. Some sniffed around for nefarious subplots, aiming at Harmon's Cardinal Richelieu, deputy mayor for development Mike Jones, and the hotel's developer, Historic Restoration Inc. "I'd be furious if Jones went to work for HRI," says one alderman, terming the bill "an awfully rich deal" and noting that Jones "was so eager to get the deal done it makes me wonder."

In a celebratory post-passage lunch at Harry's, HRI president Pres Kabacoff tries to defuse talk about any payback for Jones. "I have no idea," he says of any plans Jones might have to leave City Hall. "I would love to hire Mike Jones," Kabacoff said, pausing a few seconds before adding the kicker: "But I don't think that would be appropriate. That would be a real loss for the city."

Not that the public-private partnership is something HRI hasn't explored already. The New Orleans-based firm has former Crescent City Mayor Sidney Barthelemy on the payroll, and he's been working St. Louis since 1997 on the convention-center-hotel proposal. Just last year HRI hired Brian Wahby, who was once the right-hand man for St. Louis Treasurer Larry Williams. Wahby, cell phone pressed to ear, roamed City Hall on Thursday and on Friday walked the sidelines of the board meeting like an expectant father. He wasn't alone: Jones, Kabacoff, attorney Greg Smith, PR operative Richard Callow and Jeff Rainford, a political consultant to Aldermanic President Francis Slay, all showed up to either kibitz or watch. During an exchange between a questioner and Ald. Phyllis Young (D-7th), Jones resorted to literally whispering into the ear of Young, who sponsored the hotel bills.

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