Déjà Vu

The Cards overreached -- now San Francisco shows them the way

Mark Lamping signaled the endgame to the Cardinals' quest for a new downtown stadium more than two years ago, but most people weren't listening.

Back in September 2000, the Cardinal team president participated in a forum on stadium funding, held at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. At the time, the team was pushing hard for $200 million in public subsidies, with half coming from the state. Also on the panel: Mark Rosentraub, an urban-affairs professor, now at Cleveland State University, who's made a living throwing rocks at public subsidies for pro-sports franchises.

Rosentraub, at the forum, insisted a new stadium could be privately financed. Lamping said the professor didn't know what he was talking about.

But the Cardinal exec also hinted at what would happen if the state said no.

The Cardinals, Lamping said, would happily follow the example of the San Francisco Giants and pay for their own stadium.

"We'll do that deal," Lamping said.

Now, it looks as if the team will.

Lamping's statement was predicated on tax relief: Given the same tax burden as the Giants, he said, the Cards could finance a ballpark. Team owners, including Pulitzer Inc., which publishes the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, insist that the Giants pay zero taxes. That's news to the San Francisco franchise, which pays about $7.6 million annually to the government, according to team spokeswoman Staci Slaughter.

The Cards pay roughly $18 million a year in taxes. Mayor Francis Slay has convinced the Board of Aldermen to waive the city's 5 percent amusement tax on tickets, which would have saved the team about $3.4 million this year. That leaves the Cards with a tax bill about $7 million higher than their San Francisco counterparts.

Still a sizable sum. But there are plenty of ways for the team to close the gap in a town like St. Louis, which specializes in giveaways to sports franchises and big developers.

First off, St. Louis County has offered to pay $40 million in construction costs, no strings attached. In San Francisco, the team got $15 million from the government, but that money must eventually be paid back.

Then there's tax abatement. Under Slay's plan, the team's property-tax bill will be frozen at $490,000 for 30 years, with the city levying no taxes on a stadium with an estimated price tag of $333 million. That's a huge break, especially considering inflation: Goods and services that cost $490,000 in 1971 would cost nearly $2.15 million in today's dollars.

For the Coalition Against Public Funding for Stadiums, Slay's plan is a subsidy in sheep's clothing. Adding up the amusement-tax break, the county's contribution and another $40 million from the state to pay for a new Highway 40 interchange, the team will rake in $237 million in public money over 30 years, figures Fred Lindecke, coalition spokesman. That doesn't include property-tax breaks and the fact that the team stands to reap a windfall in ticket revenue, especially for club seats that can cost as much as $100. Busch Stadium has 281 such seats; a new stadium would have more than 5,000.

On paper, this may be as good a deal, at least for the team, as what the Giants swallowed.

Bottom line, the Cards must come up with $293 million. That's $3 million more than the Giants borrowed to build Pac Bell Park. The Giants pay about $20 million in annual debt service on a 22-year loan, bringing their combined stadium costs and tax burden to just under $28 million. And key interest rates today are far more favorable -- more than 4 percentage points lower -- than when the Giants took the plunge.

The Giants squeezed corporations and season-ticket holders for $134 million in construction costs through naming rights, advertising contracts and personal seat licenses. One of the biggest sugar daddies was Anheuser-Busch, which ponied up $35 million for a ten-year advertising deal, making the brewery a bigger sponsor on a per-year basis than the telecommunications company for which Pac Bell is named. Surely the Cardinals can count on similar support from the hometown brewer.

Do the math and it's no surprise that Craig Schnuck, president of Civic Progress, told the Post-Dispatch that the team wants to pay about $14 million a year to play in a privately funded ballpark. At that rate, and with no ticket taxes, the Cards' combined tax burden and stadium costs would total about $28 million, the same as in San Francisco.

Still, the Cards are playing coy, dangling the possibility that they could move across the Mississippi River and play in a stadium paid for by the state of Illinois. The politicians pushing this deal also focus on Illinois. Jeff Rainford, Slay's chief of staff, downplays the November 5 referendum, insisting that the Illinois legislative session, which doesn't begin until November 19, is the "critical deadline" for having a plan in place. He warns that the city would be "devastated" if the Cards leave.

Aldermanic President James Shrewsbury, who last spring said he wouldn't support waiving the ticket tax, has changed his tune, citing the Illinois threat. "I think Illinois sees something very tangible to gain by this," he says. "That's what worries me."

But smart money says the November 5 referendum is what's driving Slay's plan. Under the referendum, the city couldn't give tax breaks without a public vote, and so Slay needs everything signed into law before voters go to the polls. The "we're not really trying to thwart democracy" spin reached a laughable level when aldermen debated Slay's plan on October 11. "There's nothing in the bill that says people aren't going to vote," opined Alderman Stephen Gregali (D-14th Ward). "They're going to get to vote." True enough, but the horse will be long gone from the barn.

Even the most ardent foes of public financing admit that this deal is considerably better than $437 million in subsidies -- not counting highway improvements and other infrastructure -- that the previous pitch would have cost taxpayers over 30 years. In the realpolitik of pro sports, it looks like a better deal than most other cities have reached.

But Mike Jones, the city's point man in stadium negotiations under former Mayor Clarence Harmon, says the city could have done better.

"It doesn't look to me like [Slay] played as strong a hand as he had," says Jones, who was on the UM-St. Louis panel when Lamping said, "We'll do that deal."

Rainford's statement that the city would be devastated if the Cards leave draws a wry laugh from Jones. "By definition, if that's your mindset, you've already lost the negotiation," Jones says. "You can't cut a good deal if that's what you think."

Jones says an Illinois stadium is fraught with uncertainty, even if Springfield legislators deliver a deal financed entirely with public money. For one thing, there's the matter of a new bridge over the Mississippi. "That would be a big unknown for me to worry about," he says. "Before I went across the river, I'd want to know that that issue is resolved." For another, there's a lack of amenities in the Metro East.

If he'd been in charge, Jones says, he would have pitched the Cards high and inside. "At the end of the day, you have to establish the fact that 'I won't do this deal at any costs' -- and they have to believe that," Jones says. "I genuinely don't believe that a mayor of the city of St. Louis would ever lose an election over not giving a baseball team ... $4 million a year."

Jones says the stadium debate has dragged on largely because team owners miscalculated their political pull -- and overreached. The soap opera would have been over a long time ago if the brewery still owned the team, says Jones, who was an alderman and an Anheuser-Busch executive before Harmon tapped him to become deputy mayor.

"What you've got is some successful rich guys who nobody really knows and from a political standpoint nobody has to really give a damn about," he says. "What's the political penalty for pissing off Bill DeWitt? Pissing off August Busch is like messing with Harry ["Dirty Harry"] Callaghan.

"The question is, do you feel lucky?"

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