Grand Debate

Can a Catholic university like SLU chow down at the municipal trough?

Not so, says Grand Center President Vincent Schoemehl, who disputes the claim that the SLU arena is adversely affecting the rate of development in the arts district. "There's a whole group of projects that is moving forward," says Schoemehl. "The Metropolitan Building, the Woolworth Building, the Centene Center for the Arts: Calling something Series A does not describe its priority in terms of financing. It simply describes sources for some of the funding for it. All of those projects are moving forward."

Nonetheless, development appears to be stalling in the often deserted Grand Center. Developer Steve Trampe recently announced that his firm, Owen Development, was pulling out of the $10 million renovation of the Woolworth Building. Similarly, principals at the Pyramid Companies have placed their $27 million development plans for the Metropolitan Building on hold while the company concentrates on other projects such as its renovation of downtown's Saint Louis Centre.

Trampe did not respond to numerous requests to comment for this story. However, an article in the October 6-12 edition of the St. Louis Business Journal quoted Trampe as saying: "These are really tough buildings (to develop). You can't say retail or office or residential has been proven to this point in Grand Center. Almost any use, except entertainment, is still very much pioneering."

Grand Center resident Medler says he has a simple solution to make the arts district's buildings more attractive to developers: "SLU should remove itself from the TIF so that Grand Center can get on with its own development," says Medler, who is a party to the lawsuit.

"SLU has more money than they know what to do with. They're going to get nearly all the generated TIF funds for the next seven or eight years, and there's not going to be any money available for anything else in the neighborhood," adds Medler. "The university has a huge endowment. They don't need our money. Besides, this arena is half a mile south of Grand Center. Its construction really doesn't benefit Grand Center."

Like many universities, Saint Louis University is a nonprofit entity and does not have to pay property taxes on buildings that it owns. Nonetheless, SLU representatives are quick to point out that the institution has invested an estimated $500 million in the city's once blighted Midtown neighborhood.

SLU representatives add that the arena, whose estimated cost is $80.5 million, will only enhance the area. "The Saint Louis University arena will bring hundreds of thousands of people to Midtown St. Louis each year and will significantly enhance student life and will be an economic and social asset [to] the entire St. Louis community," says university spokesman Berry in a written statement.

Adds Schoemehl: "The bottom line is that we think the lawsuit is unfounded. It was unnecessary, and we think Saint Louis University, the City of St. Louis and Grand Center are going to prevail. It was a mean-spirited nuisance lawsuit that should never have been filed."

But critics maintain the lawsuit highlights serious constitutional and municipal concerns, adding that SLU's past investment in the area does not allow the university to tap public funds.

"Go down any major hallway on that campus and you'll find a crucifix. You won't find a star of David or a Koran on display," says Medler. "If [Saint Louis University President Lawrence] Biondi really believes that he deserves this public money, then he needs to come out and proclaim publicly to all of St. Louis that Saint Louis University is no longer a Catholic university. Then he can have his TIF money."

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