Trust Us

Six months after political heavyweights signed an agreement with the Cardinals, a deal is still up in the air

Never mind the recession. Never mind a $1 billion hole in the state budget. Never mind public opinion.

State Rep. Jim Foley (D-St. Ann) thinks the Cardinals are in a better position than ever to extract $200 million from taxpayers to pay for a new baseball stadium.

"I think it's going to be easier than last year," says Foley, who will again sponsor a bill to give the team $100 million in state money to replace Busch Stadium. For one thing, Foley notes, team owners in June reached an agreement in principle with Gov. Bob Holden, Mayor Francis Slay and County Executive Buzz Westfall, who all signed a memorandum of understanding that's supposed to serve as a framework for a deal. "Four of the components are in place -- the city, the county, the governor and the Cardinals," Foley says. "The Legislature is the last component to be done to finalize the bill. The fifth component is the toughest component."

A town-hall meeting on the stadium proposal attracted little public interest. The Dec. 20 event was sponsored by the Greater St. Louis Sports Authority.
Jennifer Silverberg
A town-hall meeting on the stadium proposal attracted little public interest. The Dec. 20 event was sponsored by the Greater St. Louis Sports Authority.

In addition to the state's money, the team, which has offered to contribute $120 million, wants $60 million from the city and $40 million from the county. The state is considered the toughest sell. Although the Board of Aldermen hasn't been presented with a bill yet, Aldermanic President James Shrewsbury says the aldermen are generally in favor of a new stadium and would be hard-pressed not to agree to a city subsidy if the state agrees to pay its share.

With the mayor, governor and county executive on board, it's now time to come up with details, and state lawmakers, Foley predicts, will swallow what they are served, no matter what their constituents might think. "Legislators were waiting for a lot of answers, and we have them now," Foley says. "Here's what the penalty's going to be if it's not built on time. Here's what the penalty's going to be if they sell the team. Here's the 30-year lease."

There's just one catch: Foley can't say right now what those lease terms or penalties will be. Nor can he pin down whether the team or the public will benefit from millions of dollars in naming-rights revenue. He promises that all will be revealed when he files his bill, with any luck before the session starts. "Right now, the lawyers have it," he explains. "The lawyers are checking it over to make sure everything's covered."

And so some things never change.

In the four years since the Cardinals began their campaign for a new stadium, key provisions of the deal have been either undecided or shrouded in secrecy. Both the team and politicians have pooh-poohed criticism of backroom dealings by saying this is too complicated for voters to understand, as if elected officials somehow hold the franchise on brains in Missouri. Really, though, it's not complicated at all. The Cardinals get a massive public subsidy for a new ballpark. Only the packaging to make it look like a good deal for taxpayers is complicated. It's somewhat akin to making cod-liver oil taste like honey.

The team's strategy hasn't changed since it announced plans for Ballpark Village more than a year ago. Pound on supposed economic redevelopment that a new stadium would bring to downtown and repeat the theme often enough that people believe you. Tack on a few threats about what will happen if a stadium isn't built -- in addition to moving the team to Illinois, the Cardinals are now claiming the Cupples Station redevelopment next to Busch Stadium is at risk if they don't get a new ballpark -- and you've got a great argument, especially for the 77 legislators who can't run for re-election because of term limits.

Not everyone shares Foley's belief that legislators from St. Louis and Kansas City will team with enough outstate lawmakers to get the deal done. Besides an economic downturn that has the state mulling layoffs and scrambling to fund basic education, there's also the prospect of a baseball work stoppage smack in the middle of the legislative session if owners and players can't work out a new labor agreement.

"I don't have any special inside information, but everybody I talk to says it's still a 50-50 proposition," says Alan Artibise, a public-policy professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who served as an advisor to the city's negotiating team until Slay took office last spring.

The city stands to gain economically from a new stadium, Artibise says, but that may not mean much to legislators from other parts of the state. "I hope at some point, particularly in the Legislature, there's some serious analysis of the quote-unquote economic benefits of major-league sports franchises in a region," he says. "It's not often that economists agree on anything, but there is overwhelming evidence that this is a game that is no longer arguable. The benefits on a region-wide basis are nil or very marginal at best." Ballpark Village may help undercut that position, but only so far -- even with a mixed-use district where Busch Stadium now stands, Artibise says, "the benefits are still grossly exaggerated." If economic revitalization were the true purpose of a public subsidy, politicians wouldn't be talking about a ballpark. "Nobody ever wants to talk about opportunity costs," Artibise says. "I can absolutely guarantee you: You give $200 million to the University of Missouri-St. Louis, let us build a downtown campus, and we'll generate economic benefits 20 times that of a Major League Baseball team."

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