Card Sharks

The St. Louis Cardinals want your money for their $370 million ballpark. But before the game begins, somebody needs to reshuffle the deck.

But McGwire, 36, won't be around forever. And so the owners have made their pitch for a new stadium. The first rumblings came late last year, when team officials met with area legislators and said they didn't yet have a proposal but might before the end of the legislative session. The meeting was nothing to get excited about, Lamping assured The Riverfront Times in early January -- merely a just-in-case sort of thing. At the time, Lamping declined to release drawings of the proposed stadium. He said it didn't make sense to show the drawings until the team had a way to pay for the stadium.

By month's end, team lobbyists were carting stadium drawings around state legislators' offices in Jefferson City to drum up support for a House bill that would set aside the state's share of the sales tax generated at Busch -- or its replacement -- to help pay for a new stadium. The measure would also set up a public stadium authority that would have the power to issue bonds for ballpark construction. The bill was born in secrecy. It began as a one-paragraph proposal to set aside the state's portion of the sales tax from the Truman Sports Complex to pay for upkeep and improvements at Arrowhead Stadium and Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, where the Chiefs and Royals play. After a public hearing before the House Commerce Committee, the bill's sponsor, Rep. Dennis Bonner (D-Independence), says he approached the Cardinals and suggested that they might be able to get the same tax break as the Kansas City teams -- the thinking being that support from legislators from St. Louis and Kansas City would be enough to overcome opposition from rural legislators. Committee chairman Rep. Henry Rizzo (D-Kansas City) says St. Louis isn't the main point of the bill, as far as he's concerned. "I don't think it has anything to do with the Cardinals," Rizzo says. "I think it has to do with getting funding for our stadiums."

And so the bill was amended -- it went from one paragraph to 24 pages -- and voted out of the Commerce Committee during an executive session without any notice or public hearing on the St. Louis component. Team lobbyists made a presentation during the closed-door session and told legislators what the Cardinals would contribute toward a new ballpark.

Cardinals president Mark Lamping: "I guess if every time there's going to be public dollars involved in any project that we're going to put it forth for the people to vote on it, then why do we need legislators?"
Jennifer Silverberg
Cardinals president Mark Lamping: "I guess if every time there's going to be public dollars involved in any project that we're going to put it forth for the people to vote on it, then why do we need legislators?"

Lamping downplays the significance of the pending bill. "It was designed to increase the state's annual subsidy in the Kansas City sports complex," he says. "We sort of liked that precedent being set. Therefore we supported it. I think it confuses things a little bit. Some people may look at the bill in Jeff City as approval for the Cardinals to build a new ballpark, and that's not what it does."

Lamping is right. By itself, the bill would not be enough to get a new stadium -- it says bonds issued by the authority would not be backed by the state or any municipal or county government. But it is a start. It sets the stage for public financing by putting a new stadium under a public stadium authority. It requires that a new stadium be built within the city. And it says the authority must spend its money on a new stadium rather than Busch. Rizzo says getting the bill to the House floor for a final vote is a top priority for him.

The Commerce Committee approved the bill on Feb. 28. Five weeks later, team officials made public what they'd been telling legislators. When they publicly unveiled stadium plans on April 8, they said their campaign to get a new stadium was just getting started.

The $370 million deal -- which doesn't include $18 million in street work and other infrastructure costs or the unspecified cost of reconfiguring MetroLink so that the train stops at the stadium entrance -- would be a winner for taxpayers, if you believe the Cardinal owners. The owners would contribute $120 million upfront, including the value of the 8 acres south of Busch where the new ballpark would be built. The team pegs the value of that land at $20 million; it intends to keep the 12-acre site where Busch now stands after the present stadium is demolished (the $4.6 million demolition cost is included in the overall $370 million price tag). "The balance of the $250 million we would propose to be funded by tax-exempt revenue bonds, which could be repaid from a portion -- a portion -- of the tax revenue directly generated by the Cardinals in the new ballpark," DeWitt says. "No new taxes would be necessary."

The Cardinals say the stadium wouldn't cost taxpayers anything so long as they don't go to the ballpark. That's a questionable proposition at best. According to the team's figures, Busch will generate $15.3 million in state and local tax revenue this year. The public would have to pay $19 million a year for 30 years to service the debt. During its first year, the stadium would generate $22 million in tax revenue, according to team figures, leaving a $3 million surplus after the annual debt is paid. That's a lot less -- $12.3 million, judging from the team's figures -- than the city and state are now getting from Busch. According to the team, that hole in public budgets would gradually shrink as revenues from a new ballpark grew through the years. On the basis of the team's model, which many economists question, tax revenue at the new ballpark would have to exceed $34.3 million a year before the new stadium could truly start paying for itself. Under the team's projections, that wouldn't happen until 2017. In the meantime, the stadium would leave an $80 million hole in the public coffers.

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