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.

Champ does believe the stadium was a good idea. And he credits Bangert's domed stadium with pushing downtown forces into action. "The timing was such [that] it really put Busch Stadium on the map. It really moved them to go ahead with Busch Stadium. It is what finally pushed them over the edge, and I give him credit for that."

For Bangert, the professional losses took a toll on his personal life and nearly ended his marriage. In the late 1970s, he headed west to California to get away from it all. "It was pretty tough," he says. "After a while, a certain bitterness sets in. I felt if I were going to get on with my life, I had to get away from this whole thing and start over." He moved to Anaheim, managed commercial properties and lived in the shadow of Disneyland.

He continued to take part in shot-put and discus competitions, and he and his wife regularly sang together in Christian operas and, once, on Robert Schuller's Hour of Power. He wrote a screenplay based on his life and his lifelong romance with his wife, figuring he might as well while he was so close to Hollywood. He pitched it to Disney.

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.

Bangert describes his story: "It was the idea of staging the Olympic Games; I was a national champion in track and field and boxing -- that and the romantic angle of my wife and I and our singing together in opera. I think it carries forth a lot of romance," he says. "It could make a very romantic story. I see a lot of junk on television today that has no storyline whatsoever. It doesn't take a genius to figure out there is a lot of human interest in that."

Disney wasn't interested.

Over time, road-builder Fred Weber Inc. bought up much of the land in Champ and continued digging in what is now a massive limestone quarry. Champ remained a municipality -- one of more than 90 incorporated small cities in St. Louis County -- and though the village's population has fluctuated over the years, today it stands at 14. It is still governed by a five-member board of trustees. Mary Kinsella, who has lived in Champ for 18 years, is the clerk. Her husband, Matthew, is the chairman. He works for Fred Weber, and they rent one of four homes in Champ, also owned by Fred Weber.

"The thing about the village," Kinsella says, "is, it's like living in the country but being in the suburbs. We have deer, coyote, wild turkeys in October. It's kind of removed from the city atmosphere, yet it's right here at 70 and 270," she says. "We still function as a village; we have a monthly meeting with the board of trustees, and business goes on as usual. We just keep plodding along." After elections, Kinsella says, it isn't unusual to get calls from the media inquiring about Champ's 100 percent voter turnout. But with 10 voters, getting good turnout isn't that hard, she says.

Anyone driving by Champ might miss it in a blink. "How would you know you were in Champ?" Kinsella asks. "It doesn't have any distinguishing factors that would say, 'I just went through the village of Champ.' There are no signs that say you are in the village of Champ. You wouldn't know you were in something different," she says. Kinsella, in fact, doesn't even tell people she lives in Champ. "Goodness, no," she says. "Then I have to explain it to people, and they just stare at me."

Most of Champ today is, quite literally, a hole in the ground, and what may be most remarkable is the massive development that has sprouted up around it, including the hotels and office buildings of Riverport, Riverport Amphitheatre and other Earth City development. As for Bangert, there's nothing in the village he founded that honors him, but Kinsella says residents have heard of him: "I never met Bill Bangert, but I knew about him when I moved back up here; people in general know about him, from reading about it." Out of curiosity, she says, "I looked up stuff in the Post from way back when."

Back in the late '50s, many questioned the wisdom of Bangert's idea of commercial and industrial development in that floodplain -- yet that is precisely what occurred in the years after Bangert left. "They said I was 30 years ahead of my time, and it was about 30 years before it took off," he says. "There is no way I could have held onto it that long, but if they'd left me alone, it would've taken off like a house on fire!" Bangert says his proposed form of financing for constructing new facilities -- municipal bonds paid for by the leases of the business that occupy the facilities -- resembles today's tax-increment financing (TIF). "It's all based on the same thing, that taxes generated from that project go to the city for a specific purpose, and that's what they're doing." Bangert was among the region's first advocates of urban sprawl -- he proposed a massive shopping mall 20 minutes from downtown long before malls had sprouted on the suburban landscape, and his idea for a domed stadium preceded the country's first, the Houston Astrodome.

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