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.

But not everyone was enthusiastic. Much of the opposition came from downtown St. Louis interests: "They thought it would relocate the center of gravity of St. Louis and disturb Downtown Inc., etc., and they weren't going to have [a stadium] out in the county, that's for sure." Bangert says environmentalists also opposed development in the floodplain. And by the summer of 1959, Champ -- with a population of 14 residents, half of them Bangert and his family -- was dealt its first blow when Gov. James Blair vetoed a bill, approved by two-thirds of the Legislature, that would have allowed the village to issue $87.5 million in revenue bonds to build the stadium and shopping center. After that, things began to spiral downward.

Bangert, and others, say his talk of a domed stadium in the county spurred downtown businessmen to pursue more vigorously the idea of an open-air stadium in downtown St. Louis (Busch Stadium opened in 1966). And because of that, Bangert began to shift his focus somewhat, pushing to create an industrial park on the floodplain next to Champ. But even those plans were dealt one setback after another. The County Council refused to allow the annexation of 3,100 acres in 1961 and suggested that Champ disincorporate because its plans for the stadium were not materializing. A grand jury was convened to look into whether steps should be taken to dissolve the village, and the next year, Thomas Eagleton, then the state's attorney general, started legal proceedings to dissolve the village -- a case that ended up before the Missouri Supreme Court twice.

Eagleton says he can't recall all the details, but he describes Bangert as a "real promoter who concocted all kinds of pipe dreams that I deemed to be unrealistic."

The dream of a giant stadium in St. Louis County soon evolved into plans for an industrial village.
The dream of a giant stadium in St. Louis County soon evolved into plans for an industrial village.
The dream of a giant stadium in St. Louis County soon evolved into plans for an industrial village.
The dream of a giant stadium in St. Louis County soon evolved into plans for an industrial village.

The Supreme Court later ruled that although the village was legally incorporated, it could not annex the 3,100 acres, finding that the village was "not equipped to supply any services to the annexed area." But Bangert wouldn't give up, and in 1965 and 1967, Champ attempted to annex about 1,000 acres. Bangert continued to cling to his dream, going to New York in 1967 to bid for the 1971 Pan American Games. In 1968, he competed in the Highland Games in Scotland. He made a run for lieutenant governor, filing as a Democrat, with a platform that included bringing the Olympic Games to Missouri in 1976 and promoting horse racing as a means of subsidizing the school system and reducing taxes. Once again, Bangert lost the race.

In 1969, the Missouri Supreme Court again ruled against the annexations. The long court fights doomed Bangert's efforts to develop Champ. "When the Supreme Court denied our annexation, what could I do with the land?" Bangert says. "I couldn't sell it as industry. I couldn't develop it. I couldn't do anything with it." And although the R.C. Can Co. relocated to Champ, no other industries followed. Bangert filed for bankruptcy in 1971, listing debts of $3.3 million. He lost his home, the French colonial where he and his wife raised their five daughters, and every bit of land he owned in Champ.

Bangert acknowledges that his scheme was troubling to some. "In my case, it was the solo enterprise they objected to, so I was my own worst enemy," he says. "They felt no one person should have control of 3,000 acres and develop it with public financing." Still, he has no regrets: "I think I did all I could."

Norm Champ Jr., whose father bought 120 acres of what became Champ, describes Bangert's plan as a "house of cards" built on other people's money. He says his father got involved with Bangert when the family's land, near Lambert Airport, was being taken for use by the expanding airport: "They kept taking our land away and our land away, and when they do that, you can reinvest, and we bought this land and sold it for a profit. [Bangert] came up with this proposition to create Champ, Mo., and to build a stadium and incorporate it into a city and invite the Olympics. We got involved," Champ says, "because Champ is a more Olympic name than Bangert."

But it all fell apart. Bangert, Champ says, never had the money to exercise the options on the adjoining 1,500 acres and gave one landowner $30,000 in earnest money using a worthless check, telling him: "Don't cash it -- it will bounce." In another instance, Champ says, Bangert "had this trench dug, and he was going to have a canal in from the river, and I said, 'Bill, how did you afford to get this trench dug?' and he said, 'I gave him an option on the land,' and I said, 'Bill, you don't own the land.'" (Bangert says he did write a $30,000 check to the landowner but says it wasn't supposed to be cashed unless he exercised the option. As for the trench's being paid for with an option, Bangert says, Champ "has got something mixed up.")

Champ says a combination of factors killed Bangert's dream. "When the state declared it couldn't be incorporated and the county fought this thing of building the buildings and having them be tax-free, it was just beat down," he says. "There were too many people against it. It ended with Bill filing for bankruptcy. Bill's fun, he's interesting, he has great ideas. He's a character out of this world. But I have a saying about a lot of people, especially in politics: If they tell me the sun's going to come up tomorrow morning, I'm going to check, because, odds are, it won't."

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