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By Kelsey McClure
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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.
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.
"If Vince wanted to run again, he could be elected mayor tomorrow," says one aldermanic ally.
The more sober-minded among these know it's unlikely to happen, particularly given Slay's ongoing popularity despite the absence of weighty accomplishment.
Still, the loyalists don't completely shut this door, largely because of the failures of Schoemehl's immediate successors and Slay's rank tanglefoot act.
"Vince gets frustrated with the people who have followed him," said one former Schoemehl staffer. "It's not because he's necessarily dying to get back into Room 200, but if he felt like the city was going down and there's no leadership, that's different."
Says another former city official: "It's like Michael Jordan in retirement, looking around and saying 'Damn, I know I got better game than these chumps.'"
Jordan serves as a sobering example of comebacks gone bad.
But the player's itch is a powerful thing. Consider all of those late-night card games Schoemehl had with his aldermanic cronies. Every time it was his turn to deal, he'd grip the cards and call the only form of poker he likes to play -- straight draw with a high betting limit.
Nothing wild, nothing fancy. Just ready, fire, aim.
That's why they call him Vinny One-Game.
Deal him in.
Or get your wheels busted by Father Capone.