Terrible Twins

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

For the record, Frankie isn't threatened by Vinny, says Slay's chief of staff, Jeff Rainford, who portrays his boss as a big-tent kind of guy, welcoming ideas from any and all quarters.

"It's a big idea; it's a visionary idea," Rainford says of the latest Grand Center blueprint. "Vince Schoemehl is an idea guy, and we need idea guys in this city. It doesn't bother [the mayor] at all where the good idea comes from -- a good idea is a good idea. The only challenge with Vince is, he's great with ideas but he isn't a very good detail guy, and we just want to make sure that the details match this very good idea."

One of those details is the building at 634 North Grand Boulevard that houses the city health department, says Rainford. Grand Center wants to buy it for a dollar; the city wants the $3 million market price, money that will help move the department to another more modern and roomier location.

"So that's a detail, but we get that ironed out and it's a win-win for the city and for Grand Center," says Rainford.

A far bigger detail is making sure the city gets maximum bang for its diñero, says Rainford, and doesn't back another clunker such as the St. Louis Marketplace, down on Manchester, the last big TIF project Schoemehl supported as mayor.

"That thing was visionary and a great idea in concept, but, practically speaking, it's been a disaster,'' says Rainford. "It's a financial albatross around the city's neck, because we're on the hook for the bonds if that thing fails."

Ouch. A ding on Vinny. But remember, this is about as diplomatic as Crash Rainford, the ultimate attack dog, can get. Slay allies such as Gregg F.X. Daly, the city license collector, sing a simpler, happier tune.

"Fran and Vince have the best interests of the city in mind," says the F.X.er. "Naturally you've got two personalities going on here, but both can put the city first on this."

Great. Everyone making nice. Or as nice as they know how to make -- in public, at least. Be an interesting over-under bet on how long this will last.

Not very, say many insiders. They already smell the rat that may bite Schoemehl's plan in the butt, pointing to Geisman and Green as the primary sharp-toothed suspects. Geisman's live-in boyfriend is Richard Callow, Slay's favorite poison-pen PR operative and a political enemy of Schoemehl, who brought him to town for his failed gubernatorial run. Green has little reason to give up control of a TIF mechanism she has turned into another form of political patronage.

"I think Slay's handlers are scared to death of giving Vince anything like this," says one former city official. "I think Barb would like to see it get strangled in the process. Barb would be tickled pink to have Darlene's people do the dirty work. If I were Slay, I'd let Darlene do the dirty work, pick out the more interesting parts of the overall project and do them as stand-alones."

Consider all of this insight against the backdrop of the city's ancient political blood feuds. Although Schoemehl endorsed Slay for mayor, they come from warring factions of the city's white political enclave -- Vinny from the German-and-Irish camp, Slay from the Lebanese-and-Syrian camp.

There's also grand irony here: As mayor, Schoemehl was a tireless booster of big-ticket white-elephant projects such as the St. Louis Marketplace and the Gateway Mall; now he's talking about "repairing the fabric of the neighborhood" that is Grand Center.

And, given the unprecedented scope and complexity of Schoemehl's plan, it might not take too big a rat bite to sink it. There are serious questions about tying up future tax revenues for a cash-strapped city, doing too many projects that might dump too much office space on a glutted market and the what's-in-it-for-my-ward attitude of the aldermen who have yet to vote up or down on Schoemehl's dream project.

"I feel real nervous about it," says Jim Shrewsbury, acting president of the Board of Aldermen. "But you look at SLU and Grand Center and you want that development to continue.... That's the jewel of the center of the city. It's almost as important as downtown, and that makes it worth the risk."

Shrewsbury says he buys Schoemehl's declared lack of mayoral ambition.

"I think Vince is happy doing this because it's the type of thing he can make a difference on," says Shrewsbury. "I don't think this is linked to any future political aspirations."

This line of logic is hammered home by the rusting hulks of pols who retired but tried to come back for one last hurrah. Vinny One-Game has nothing more to prove, and if a three-term mayor learns anything while in office, it's not to be mayor again. Plus, he shut down his legendary money machine a long time ago, and that's the hardest thing for a politician to revive.

But in misty and romantic moments, longtime Schoemehl allies and staffers would love to see the boss give it another go.

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