The Champ

Bill Bangert wanted a world-class domed stadium in St. Louis County, but all he got was a tiny town. Now the 77-year-old dreamer is back in Missouri with a few more nutty ideas.

At age 28, Bangert lost sight in his left eye because of a disease that caused recurrent hemorrhaging in the microscopic blood vessels surrounding his retina, resulting in scar tissue that caused the retina to detach. The disease soon affected his right eye as well, resulting in total blindness. He feared he'd never see again, until surgery in the spring of 1952 miraculously restored vision in his right eye. Bangert was able to see his daughter, 16-month-old Sharon, for the first time since shortly after her birth.

In 1954, Bangert decided to run for Congress as a Republican, promising the "singingest campaign you ever heard." When he received a threatening note warning him to "lay off the labor men in this campaign," it made the newspapers, though Bangert publicly dismissed the threat as the work of a crank. But two weeks later, in a bizarre incident, Bangert told Berkeley police that his car had been struck by a bullet as he was driving home around midnight, shortly after dropping off a babysitter. To this day, Bangert is unsure whether he was an intended target or the victim of an errant gunshot, but the .32-caliber bullet entered his left front window, hit a metal molding and ricocheted onto the seat. Splinters of glass from the window lodged in his left eye, requiring surgery. Luckily, Bangert says, his left eye was his blind eye.

Bangert lost the race for Congress, but he wasn't discouraged. He continued to serve as mayor of Berkeley until 1957, when he resigned after voters eliminated the mayor's seat and opted for a council/manager form of government. In 1958, he left his job at Bangert Bros. and announced his plans for the village of Champ.

A gathering of Golden Gloves champions, taken in the 1950s, at the Midwest Golden Gloves Championship in Chicago. Bill Bangert is the tall man in the center; Joe Louis is fourth from the right.
A gathering of Golden Gloves champions, taken in the 1950s, at the Midwest Golden Gloves Championship in Chicago. Bill Bangert is the tall man in the center; Joe Louis is fourth from the right.

Bangert had hatched a plan for what he described as a "controlled municipality." Combining his interests in government, business and sports, he came up with his idea for the domed stadium at the intersection of what was then the Mark Twain Expressway and a proposed circumferential highway -- what St. Louis now has in I-70 and I-270 -- about five miles west of Lambert Airport.

His idea was a novel one. He wanted to legally incorporate a small village of about 300 acres on undeveloped farmland, where the stadium would be built, and issue tax-exempt revenue bonds to finance construction of the stadium and a massive shopping mall. Rentals to businesses occupying the facilities would go to retiring the bonds, and the rent payments could be written off by the businesses as operating costs, resulting in a savings in federal income taxes.

The municipality would provide no fire or police services and would have just a skeleton crew of residents, including Bangert and his family -- just enough people to form an official municipal body to oversee the stadium and surrounding businesses. He hired an architect to draw up plans and brought a scale model to a meeting at the Chase Hotel of city and county business and government officials. He hoped to lure the 1964 Summer Olympics.

Bangert built a large four-bedroom French colonial for his family, complete with a circular drive surrounding a removable aluminum flagpole. Bangert sometimes tossed the flagpole like a caber -- he actually used it in several track meets. Naming the village was easy. He called it Champ. He explains: "Because of the connection to sports and athletics. It was the epitome of sports, so that's why I chose it." Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not -- depending on whom you ask -- it was also the last name of one of Bangert's early partners in the venture, Norman Champ, who served on the Berkeley Board of Aldermen when Bangert was mayor and was owner of Champ Spring Co. Champ the businessman bought 120 acres of what became Champ the village.

"I went to the [Missouri] Legislature and asked to incorporate the village, and they did, and the [St. Louis] County Council did, too," Bangert says. "It wasn't easy. We really incorporated mainly to build the stadium, the enclosed stadium. At that time, all we had in St. Louis was Sportsman's Park at Grand and Hebert in North St. Louis, and it was very obsolete."

"The idea caught on right away," Bangert says, "a restaurant 350 feet up in the dome, surrounded by a shopping center. Back then, all we had were the beginnings of shopping centers. This was one big giant mall that would have been bigger than any mall in the United States, even today. We had a lot of people excited about it. The shopping was combined with the stadium, so someone who didn't want to watch a football game could go shopping."

Back in 1959, when Champ was incorporated, then-County Supervisor James H.J. McNary called the project "a great thing for St. Louis County, its neighbors and the entire metropolitan area of St. Louis," according to newspaper accounts. George Halas Jr., son of then-Chicago Bears owner George Halas, was among the celebrities who attended dedication ceremonies. "It's a magnificent project and I hope it is built," he told the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. "These huge stadiums must come eventually." Representatives of five businesses declared their intentions to locate at the facilities once they were built. They included the president of the Chase Hotel and Edward and Donald Schnuck of Schnuck Markets.

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