Say Goodbye to Busch

There's a new game in town as the Cardinals square off with the city over how to finance a new stadium

Anyone waiting for a bus knows the fix is in. The day after the Mets came to town to slap some sense into the Cardinal faithful, it could be seen on any Bi-State bus plying its route. The flashing yellow-dots-on-black-background sign above the front windshield alternated the route name -- for example "97 DELMAR" -- with the equally large, just as persistent "GO CARDINALS."

Here's the public-transit system, already running on fumes this year with a $8.2 million deficit, providing free pub for the Redbirds. But rest easy: As the Cardinal owners look for ways to build a $370 million stadium with only $120 million of their own money, their strategy doesn't include diverting tax dollars from the troubled transit agency. Now, diverting tax dollars they would otherwise have paid the state, the city, the county -- that's another matter.

The newest tack taken by the baseball barons is tax-increment financing. (And you thought TIFs were only for Wal-Marts and struggling suburban shopping malls soliciting Nordstroms.) The two main obstacles to this approach are convincing the state Legislature to allow a TIF bond to last 30 years instead of the current limit of 23 years and convincing the state's ruling body that building a new stadium about 100 feet south of the old stadium qualifies for TIF at all. TIF bonds are supposed to direct new tax dollars into a project to help pay for something, well, that is new.

The Cardinals plan to be playing in a brand-new old-looking stadium by 2006. By then, Mark McGwire will be 42 and likely retired; by then, Rick Ankiel will have regained his control; by then, the current Busch Stadium will have been blown up and carted off in pieces to a landfill. In order for the Cards to get their wish, the magic has to happen during the upcoming legislative session. As one negotiator says, "This next session is their window of opportunity."

In preparation for that leap through the window, the Cards may benefit from the current euphoria over a winning season that brought them close to their first World Series appearance in 13 years. But Mike Jones, the dealmeister for Mayor Clarence Harmon, says he's taking the advice Alan Greenspan gave regarding the stock market -- not to get caught up in "irrational exuberance" -- and applying it to the obsessive attention to the Cardinals' postseason play. "As far as I'm concerned, (the new stadium) is a real-estate deal and a long-term project," the deputy mayor says. "We have to look at it as a 25-acre redevelopment deal; the Cardinals are looking at it as a ballpark. We have similar interests, not identical interests."

Although it's clear that the meat of the deal will be carved out in Jeff City, the team owners must get City Hall to commit. The folks meeting on the south bank of the wide Missouri won't budge until they see the city ante up. One reason is that the Cardinals estimate that 93 percent of people who attend their games do not live in the city of St. Louis. According to one insider, "Guys like Buzz Westfall and the outstate reps don't think of Busch Stadium as an entertainment venue so much as a tollbooth for the city of St. Louis."

So the spin being spun now is that this is a large redevelopment deal for downtown. John Bardgett, the lobbyist hired by the Cardinals for the upcoming January session, admits that the new stadium will be a "tough sell" in Jeff City but says the proposal "can do the most to benefit and revitalize residential and retail development in downtown St. Louis." So much for those lofts over on Washington Avenue.

Harmon, Aldermanic President Francis Slay and Comptroller Darlene Green met last week to discuss the latest overture from the Cardinals. They plan a counterproposal by the end of this week. Jones says the city has two important goals: that the team be held responsible for construction cost overruns and that the city receive some guaranteed "hold harmless" revenue based on what the city has received in direct taxes from the team. That way, additional revenue the new stadium generates over that amount would be plowed back into the project to pay for debt or upkeep.

The Cardinals claim that the city may be getting around $15 million in taxes from the team this year, up considerably from the $6 million they paid in 1995. It appears the level at which the funding would be set would be closer to that 1995 level.

Slay thinks that, barring any new taxes, there will be no public vote on the new stadium. "I think it's going to be the elected representatives who are going to have to make a decision whether a proposal that is submitted makes sense for the taxpayers," he says. Harmon has said on several occasions that if any "significant" amount of public funds is used for the new stadium, the issue should be put up for a public vote, but he has been unclear as to what that actually means.

Once the city is on record as to what it will do, the Cardinals will attempt to pass TIF legislation to divert state sales taxes generated at the new stadium into the project. If any of this stalls, the Cards owners' atomic weapon is right across the river: The Cardinals don't have to leave the area; they can just build in Illinois. That likely won't happen, but it's the only implied threat the team has.

So get your arms around this, Cardinal faithful -- the second incarnation of Busch Stadium will follow the fate of the first Busch Stadium on North Grand. It's a goner.

 
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