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When it comes to being given a stadium, Cardinal owners want it both ways

St. Louis Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt told me Tuesday that all the baseball team is seeking in its proposal for a new stadium is a "public-private partnership."

I think I've figured out what that means. It's public when the Cardinals want it public. It's private when they want it private. The partnership? That's between your tax dollars and their wallets.

On the public side, these are your St. Louis Cardinals we're talking about. You know, your civic treasure for more than a century, the one that's created all the pride, economic benefits, wondrous memories and loyalties that have been handed down from generation to generation.

On the private side, it's just another closely held business, one whose ownership structure and financial information are none of the general public's concern. The Cardinals are willing to share bits and pieces of their finances -- there's no reluctance at all to go public in blaming ticket-price increases on that exploding payroll for the millionaire athletes -- but as to other details of the business, it's private when they want it private.

This is all well and good until public meets private in that "partnership." Therein, the team effectively receives a free $350 million stadium (notwithstanding its claims to the contrary), and the public -- well, the public gets to keep its beloved Cardinals where they are, with the added comfort of knowing that hundreds of millions of foregone tax dollars will help the team remain "competitive."

Such a deal.

Last week the RFT published an extensive profile of DeWitt, and I was struck by one item: his simple but firm refusal to discuss who owns what share of your St. Louis Cardinals. That's private information.

That really hit me. You the public aren't even entitled to know who really owns your Cardinals, even as you're being hit up for hundreds of millions in tax dollars -- in the name of civic pride, loyalty and economics -- to enhance dramatically the value of their private asset.

DeWitt would tell me he was the managing general partner of the team, its largest shareholder and its representative to Major League Baseball. He added, "I spent my youth in St. Louis, have family in St. Louis and spend a substantial amount of my time there. I probably know it better than I know Cincinnati."

He added that he hoped he was well regarded enough in St. Louis to offset any question of hometown ownership.

Still, DeWitt has been a permanent resident (and taxpayer) of Cincinnati since his father bought the Reds in the early 1960s. His primary business is there -- the investment firm of Reynolds, DeWitt & Co. (with Cardinal investor Mercer Reynolds) -- as are many of his longstanding partners in other ventures.

In working on this, I did learn that the Cardinals have publicly listed the names of their 17 owners in their media guide. A simple list doesn't indicate what part of the team is truly owned by St. Louisans -- relevant, I think, only if public funding is involved. But it's better than nothing.

It turns out that of the team's 17 investors, seven live in Cincinnati; one each live in Pittsburgh, Memphis and Chicago; and seven are here in St. Louis. Here's how they break down geographically:

Cincinnati: DeWitt, Reynolds and five prominent business leaders -- Robert Castellini, Richard Sutphin, Dudley Taft, W.J. Williams and T.L. Williams.

Pittsburgh: G. Watts Humphrey Jr.

Memphis: Michael McDonnell.

Chicago: Nick D. Kladis.

St. Louis: Andrew Baur, Frederick Hanser, Stephen Brauer, David Pratt, Donna DeWitt Lambert, John K. Wallace Jr. and Michael Pulitzer.

I'm not in the business of counting other people's money, but there are little indicators out there that these individuals are rather well heeled. Even setting aside such items as Pratt's selling 90 percent of his United Industries in 1999 for $620 million (according to the St. Louis Business Journal) or common knowledge of the Pulitzer fortune, these folks own banks, a steel company, television stations, real-estate companies, engineering companies, racehorses, you name it.

Checking the public record, we find that DeWitt and Reynolds just finished co-chairing the instant $40 million fundraising drive for the inaugural celebration of their erstwhile business partner in the Texas Rangers, President George W. Bush.

In addition to DeWitt and Reynolds, three other Cardinal owners (Castellini, Brauer and Pratt) were each able to scratch up the maximum $100,000 gift to the party's party. On the other hand, this may have been a disappointing representation: After all, 14 of the 17 owners (all but Pulitzer, Hanser and Kladis) had given maximum $1,000 campaign gifts to W in the past election cycle.

It is a gross understatement to say that these people -- with collective worth in the billions -- don't need public assistance with anything. The only stadium-financing question is whether they like the way the numbers look without the sort of public subsidy their fellow sports monopolists have extracted around the country.

So I asked DeWitt the forbidden question: Why don't you all just go build a new stadium yourselves, just as the San Francisco Giants did (albeit after four failed attempts at getting public handouts)?

"There's no way we could be competitive with the kind of financial burden, with all the taxes, we have now," he replied. "It's not even close to being possible."

DeWitt told me the Giants' situation was incomparable to that in St. Louis because the team pays no taxes such as the 12 percent that comes off tickets here and that it has far greater revenues because of its market. That's debatable, I believe.

But probably not in public.

 
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