Terrible Twins

Nightmare for a rookie mayor -- Schoemehl and Biondi on the prowl with a Big Idea

If this city's performance-challenged chief executive could pick the person he least wants to see barreling into his office with a grandiose idea, odds are it would be former Mayor Vince Schoemehl.

If Mayor Francis Slay and his harried handlers could wish away one live-wire, idea-a-minute contrast to his own inability to get things done, it would be Schoemehl, the FDR of St. Louis, now the majordomo of Grand Center Incorporated, the nonprofit development vehicle for that moribund Midtown district.

And if the feckless gods would grant Frankie the Saint a corollary wish, political touts say he'd use it to frantically blink away the vision of Schoemehl walking arm in arm with the Reverend Lawrence Biondi, the ball-busting president of St. Louis University, both carrying the blueprint for a burrito grande of a tax-increment finance district for Grand Center.

But here they come, striding out of the mists of their shared neighborhood, Father Capone and Vinny One-Game. The first is a Jesuit cleric who has God on the speed dial of his Lexus' car phone and can blue up a room with towering profanity; the second is the former three-term king of Room 200 who has the track record Frankie covets and is still too young to just play poker and golf.

"That's a set of bookends, isn't it?" says Democratic state Representative Tom Villa, a SLU alum and former aldermanic president, chuckling over the image of a Biondi-Schoemehl tag team. "Say what you want about Vince, but he's a living paradigm shift. He has a lot of good ideas, a lot of bad ideas, but he'll run 'em up the flagpole, and that's how things get done. And Father? He's no slouch."

Biondi is putting his considerable can-do muscle behind the latest Big Idea unfurled by Schoemehl, the man he helped put at the Grand Center helm a little more than a year ago.

Instead of using TIFs on a project-by-project basis, as has been the custom in St. Louis with the exception of a small district recently approved for the commercial area around Lafayette Square, Schoemehl wants to borrow a page from Chicago and Kansas City and create a massive TIF district. Vinny One-Game's plan envisions injecting an estimated $100 million subsidy into a $425 million bundle of building, garage, greenspace and beautification projects slated for a once-vibrant district that city fathers have been trying to revive since Jim Conway was mayor.

One of the key interests shared by Schoemehl and Biondi is the creation of an urban playground for the 15,000 students, professors and administrators who walk SLU's campus. The model is the University City Loop, Joe Edwards' hip dreamchild, which has a magnetic draw on the student and faculty of Washington University. Biondi also wants to build a $67 million basketball arena and is rushing the project to his board for approval.

Big doings by two big-timers. And an interesting political dilemma for Frankie the Saint, scrambling to salvage the two highly problematic projects he decided to back in a bid to establish his own track record -- a new stadium for the Cardinals and the Old Post Office renovation.

Must be a Maalox moment for Frankie and his handlers, one with a very high heartburn factor. The Saint badly needs a big win, but does he grab for one that puts Vinny One-Game squarely back in the spotlight, reminding folks of those halcyon days when a boyish mayor actually got things done and got re-elected?

"You'd think Francis would be a little nervous about this," says one downtown insider. "He's got to sleep with one eye open there, wondering what Vince's true ambitions are."

Others wonder whether Slay can afford to risk the wrath of Father Capone, the bare-knuckled brawler who hates to hear the word "no" and is backing Schoemehl's play.

"Fuck Vince -- look who he's riding in the car with," says another political wisehead.

In a very real sense, Biondi is Schoemehl's enforcer and patron. The two men are supersimpatico and have been since the first time Biondi came to Room 200, fifteen years ago, to meet Schoemehl.

"As Father left, Vince says, 'I'll tell you something. If Rome wasn't built in a day, it wasn't that guy's fault,'" recalls one former staffer.

So far, Frankie has elected to take the officially diplomatic and politically prudent road. Schoemehl says he has been invited down to his old office for face-to-face chats with Slay and says the mayor has embraced his predecessor's big plan while asking tough questions about how much future tax revenue would be tied up by a Grand Center TIF district, one that would have a 23-year lifespan.

"He and I are not at odds -- on anything," says Schoemehl. "I would not anticipate any opposition and, frankly, have seen nothing but support. It's not, 'Oh, gee, Vince -- anything you want, fine by us.' He's asking the questions I would ask if I were sitting in his chair.... Their attitude is, if this thing can get done in their administration, it's a big feather in their cap."

For the record, Vinny One-Game emphatically denies having a jones to be mayor again and thinks it's unfair to compare his big canvas project with Frankie the Saint's day-to-day responsibilities and anemic record. He also gives high marks to Barb Geisman, deputy mayor for development, for pitching in and helping answer objections from Comptroller Darlene Green, who prefers to use TIFs one project at a time.

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