Wal-Mart World

Callow's handiwork in Maplewood may spell money trouble for the city

Most readers of this space are painfully familiar with Richard Callow.

Usually the catty chatter about the omnipresent prince of political intrigue is spurred by petty irritations, bruised egos or revenge for a slight delivered by Callow by way of Jerry Berger's gossip column in the Post-Dispatch.

Seldom do Callow's actions seem to have a quantifiable, dollars-and-cents impact on City Hall, where he spends much of his time and attention. That changed on November 5.

The job he did running the campaign to pass a Maplewood ballot issue will have a direct and negative impact on the city of St. Louis' tax base -- one that will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue.

Such effects might appear to be normal fallout from what a hired public-relations operative does, except that Callow shares sleeping quarters with deputy mayor for development Barbara Geisman and directed the campaign to pass Proposition U in St. Louis, which reconfigured how the new use tax money is divided, on November 5.

In Maplewood, THF Inc. paid Callow's public-relations firm, Public Eye Inc., at least $82,315, mostly for printing and voter contact by telephone, to promote the ballot referendum that cleared the way for the destruction of 121 homes and about 40 businesses along Hanley Road. Rising from that bulldozed plain, a few blocks south of Highway 40, will be a Wal-Mart and a Sam's Club.

When the Maplewood Sam's Club opens in September 2004, one located less than two miles away will close. That Sam's Club, in the city, is part of St. Louis Marketplace, the strip mall that replaced Scullin Steel on Manchester Avenue.

Opened in 1990 and made possible by tax-increment financing, the Marketplace has had its troubles. When several anchor stores closed, the project's revenues dropped, but, according to the comptroller's office, the city has never had to dip into general revenues to pay any portion of the annual $1.8 million note it must cover.

This past year, the city received $2.5 million in revenue from stores at the site, which include Sam's Club, Kmart and Supermarket of Shoes. Confidentiality agreements with the state preclude the city from revealing how much tax revenue comes from which store, but it's estimated that Sam's Club generates more tax money than Kmart or the other stores.

Callow doesn't see this as his problem.

"I'll take credit for running a good campaign and for winning, but not for St. Louis Marketplace's economic woes," says Callow. "Through four successive city administrations, St. Louis Marketplace has never had much success as a retail center. Bad planning, bad luck, bad access, bad anchor tenants and lots of litigation got it off on several bad feet."

Callow even suggests that the Marketplace "will have better luck being something else." Such a possibility was the lead item in, of all places, a Berger column, back in June. THF had hired Callow to push the Maplewood project, so it makes sense that Berger would trumpet the idea that the city strip mall would be transformed into "office, light manufacturing and live/work space," by THF, which is also the strip mall's leasing agent.

Civic civil wars over retailers are not unusual, but for Maplewood city manager Martin Corcoran, there were no conflicts of interest. He makes no apologies for his burg's grabbing a Wal-Mart. Maplewood, which has lost tax revenue partly because of other failed retail-development schemes, had a $300,000 budget deficit, and layoffs were looming.

"What drives cities' revenues is sales tax," says Corcoran. "That's the revenue structure, and it's particularly acute in St. Louis County."

Opponents of the 31-acre Maplewood development saw a Post-Dispatch editorial supporting the new Wal-Mart as part of Callow's handiwork. The editorial stressed that no TIF funding was sought for the project. What it failed to mention was that a transportation-development district tax was part of the deal, expected to raise $17 million for the $74 million project.

Feeding the opponents' frustration even more was the announcement, less than a week after the election, that THF wants to build a Lowe's hardware store across the street from the proposed Wal-Mart and will seek a TIF to help pay for it. Opponents of the construction contend that the additional development had been planned but that THF kept quiet until after the referendum.

As for his connections to City Hall, Callow admits to having been hired in the past by city Treasurer Larry Williams but denies currently being paid by Mayor Francis Slay or any other city office. On Friday, he attended the press conference announcing the plan for the new Cardinals stadium. He says he attended to keep an eye on how it went for the mayor's office. As Callow sat in the front row after the press conference was over, he insisted that his heart's with the city.

"I cannot imagine taking a client whose actions were contrary to what the mayor or Barbara regarded as the best interests of the city," Callow says. "The success of St. Louis Marketplace, or its failure, has roots far deeper than this."

Callow contends that the Sam's Club in the city might have closed anyway or that even if it does close as a result of the Maplewood replacement, other tenants or uses for St. Louis Marketplace can be found. THF would do that, and Callow has worked for THF.

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