Smelterville

Crystal City forges one hell of a deal.

Bradley, who now works for the New York financial firm Allen & Company, did not respond to numerous interview requests for this story. Nor has he made his intentions known to the hundreds of Crystal City residents who fear their favorite son is quite literally selling out his old hometown. The former senator is just one of the several larger-than-life characters tied directly — or indirectly — to the smelter. The list includes real estate speculators, a Senior Olympics volleyball player, the "Communist Chinese" and even the famous consumer advocate and Hollywood inspiration Erin Brockovich.

"I keep waiting for Michael Moore to show up with his cameras," says Crystal City resident Terry Coleman. "This is Roger & Me in Crystal City. It's the ultimate underdog story."

The frenzy surrounding the Crystal City smelter may never have transpired without the aid of Tom Kerr. A California transplant, Kerr wears Hawaiian-print shirts 365 days a year, making him something of a dead ringer for the Beach Boys' golden-oldies crooner, Mike Love.

Tom Kerr had big plans for his mines. Then he discovered the city's secret plans for a smelter.
Tom Kerr had big plans for his mines. Then he discovered the city's secret plans for a smelter.
Bill Bradley is long gone, but his shrine remains in Crystal City High School.
Bill Bradley is long gone, but his shrine remains in Crystal City High School.

Kerr also turns plenty of heads on the road, zipping about Crystal City's winding roads in his improbably small Mercedes-Benz Smart Car. The 53-year-old entrepreneur imports the tiny automobiles from Germany and sells them out of the old Rexall Drug warehouse he owns in north St. Louis. The building also serves as headquarters for Kerr's Fiesta Corporation, which, in addition to selling Smart Cars and exotic steam showers, provides warehousing services.

Last spring Kerr further diversified his business interests when he acquired the old sand mines immediately south of Crystal City. The mines once provided PPG with the silica necessary to make glass, but they've sat unused for decades. Kerr reasons that the constant 62-degree temperature inside the caves makes for a perfect warehouse space. More than that, though, Kerr sees the mines as an international destination and dreams of converting the caves into an enormous underground playground.

"We're talking an Olympic-caliber facility," says Kerr, who grew up playing volleyball on the beaches of San Diego and now travels the nation playing the sport in the Senior Olympics. "Volleyball, badminton, hockey. Everything will all be under one roof."

On a recent winter day, Kerr and his business associate, Jim Duncan, stand outside the mouth of the mines sharing a twelve-pack of Michelob Light. The two have recently installed spotlights on the floor of the caves, and the 400-watt bulbs illuminate a deep antechamber supported by columns of sand and rock as thick as redwood trees. "This is where we're going to have our extreme sports," says Kerr. "Rock-climbing, paintball, motocross."

At 5.5 million square feet, the mine is roughly five times the size of the Saint Louis Galleria. But PPG hit an aquifer during its mining, and much of the caves now lie submerged in water. Far from seeing this as an obstacle, the ever-optimistic Kerr boasts that the water is almost clean enough to drink. "It's been naturally filtered by sand," he notes. "We could bottle it or sell it for irrigation."

Back outside in the blinding light of afternoon, Kerr points out where he'd locate the hotels, a convention center and outdoor amphitheater. Kerr's even gone so far as to draw up architectural sketches of the complex. The only thing keeping his dreams from becoming reality, he says, is the smelter. "You can't have a world-class athletic complex located next door to a smelter," complains Kerr. "It just doesn't make sense."

Kerr says he offered PPG $5.4 million for the site of its old glass factory last summer. When the company failed to respond, Kerr says he offered the same deal to the city. It was only then that Kerr learned Crystal City officials were working behind the scenes to sell the PPG property to Jim Kennedy's Wings Enterprises. A little more digging revealed that Beijing-based Minmetals (a company that operates under the control of the Chinese government) was providing Kennedy a $300 million deed of trust to finance the smelter.

An outraged Kerr fired off postcards last August to every household in Crystal City, warning them of the project. The mailing asked residents to complete a survey on whether they were in favor of Kerr's recreation complex or the smelter. As a gesture of goodwill, Kerr promised to buy everyone who filled out the survey a MooLatte at the local Dairy Queen. The plan almost backfired when the DQ burned to the ground the very day Kerr mailed the postcards.

"I assume the fire was accidental, but the timing was immaculate. It scared the hell out of me," he says. "I thought, 'Who'd I piss off?'"

Even without the lure of frozen confections, Kerr's message hit its mark. The local papers ran with the story and soon the smelter was the talk of the town. "I'm thinking to myself, 'I live in this community and I don't know anything about this,'" says Jill Thomas, a Crystal City resident and business owner who contacted Kerr after learning the news. "If the Chinese are paying to put a smelter in my back yard, shouldn't I know about it?"

In late August, Thomas and a handful of other concerned citizens, including Tom Kerr, gathered at the home of Jack Ginnever to share information about the smelter. A similar meeting a week later drew a crowd of 25 people. By the third week the group was more than 70 people strong and had found a place to meet inside an airplane hangar in nearby Festus. They called themselves Concerned Citizens for Crystal City (C4), and included among their members such dignities as Terry Yesberg, a former Crystal City mayor; and Bill McKenna, a former state senator and president of Jefferson College.

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