In a TIF arrangement, McKee borrows money from private investors and uses it to build things that normally the city would, such as roads and sewers. In exchange, the city keeps his tax obligations constant, even while his developing properties balloon in value and businesses start bustling. This new stream of wealth, untapped by the city, puts extra cash in McKee's pocket that he can use to pay off his debts to the investors.

"People are so uneducated about TIFs," posits Jeff Rainford, Mayor Slay's chief of staff. "There's no risk to the city at all if the city doesn't guarantee the debt. We've done that very rarely in St. Louis, and we've not agreed to do it in this case."

Still, McKee got an earful when he came requesting such a deal at the now-infamous TIF Commission hearing of September 23 at city hall. A crowd of some 400 people, both avid supporters and harsh critics, tried to fill the second-floor meeting room. Half of them never made it inside.

McKee says his $8.1 billion plan to transform north St. Louis will create 22,000 permanent jobs.
McKee says his $8.1 billion plan to transform north St. Louis will create 22,000 permanent jobs.
Cheryl Nelson fears her newly-constructed north-side neighborhood, built in 1997, is destined to meet the wrecking ball.
Cheryl Nelson fears her newly-constructed north-side neighborhood, built in 1997, is destined to meet the wrecking ball.

D.B. Amon managed to get in, though. He'd been a vocal critic in previous small community forums held by McKee. At one of those gatherings, Amon chided the developer for trying to prevent a young man from videotaping the proceedings. "I'm an attorney; I know better than you," Amon shouted.

At the September TIF hearing, Amon jabbed his ink pen at the commissioners and said, "Giving these people the impression that eminent domain is not a part of this program is deceitful. It's evil, and it's wrong." Applause erupted.

"You all spent much of your time talking to McKee's people," Amon argued, while the residents affected by the plan were given but two minutes each to speak their minds.

Two weeks later, on behalf of a plaintiff named Bonzilla Smith, Amon filed suit against the city and McKee. The pleadings stated, among other things, that the TIF commission failed to consider all the public's comments at the hearing. It kept dissenters out, according to Amon's suit, by allowing the plan's supporters, allegedly bussed in by McKee, to fill up seats.

Worse still, the commission never bothered to determine whether Paul McKee can make his vision a reality, Amon claimed. For example, has the developer won a genuine commitment from his primary lender, the Bank of Washington? And, given the complex ownership structure of McKee's holdings, who will be liable if the deal goes south?

One document even suggested, according to Amon, that McKee would profit even without a TIF, so why does he need one?

The commission has approved a plan, Amon wrote, that is "woefully flawed."

On October 11, KMOV-TV (Channel 4) reporter Chris Nagus knocked on Bonzilla Smith's front door in hopes of finding out more about the lady behind the lawsuit.

Smith, an elderly woman wearing glasses and slippers, told Nagus she was indeed the plaintiff, although she thought there would be others besides her. She feared eminent domain and was willing to litigate to stop it but didn't seem to know exactly whom she was suing. She said Amon had reached out to her — not the other way around.

When the reporter and his crew caught up with the attorney the next day, his behavior was bizarre. With the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his head, Amon chomped on a cigar and refused to answer any questions. He kept retreating into his office only to hurry back out, hamming it up the whole time.

At one point, he tried to hoist up his sweatshirt to prove he was wearing a tie. Later, he yanked the cigar out of his mouth, babbled, "I meant what I said and said what I meant," then flashed a toothy grin and waved into the camera.

Amon declined to comment for this story.

When Amon finally did sit down with the TV news crew on October 14, he blamed elected officials and the black middle class for abandoning the north side. Asked why then he would file a lawsuit to kill a proposal that might finally reverse that, the attorney replied that he didn't consider McKee's particular vision "an opportunity for the people who live in the area."

For the next few weeks, Eric Vickers mulled things over on the sidelines. He became acquainted with Cheryl Nelson, a new plaintiff who joined Amon's suit. He also began considering potential team members.

Bevis Schock quickly sprang to mind. Both launched their careers at Bryan Cave after earning law degrees from the University of Virginia. Vickers aligned himself with the African American left, while Schock turned into a self-proclaimed "Big Meanie" conservative ideologue. But Schock, fueled by a reverence for private property rights, became a seasoned warrior in the crusade against eminent domain. That made him perfect for this case, Vickers says.

Jim Schottel, for his part, had his own experience fighting for the little guy. Once a field goal kicker at Baker University, Schottel was running across a wet floor in May 1991 when he slipped, broke his neck and suffered paralysis that keeps him in a wheelchair to this day.

After finishing law school, he briefly worked for Vickers before setting up his own practice. In 2005 his lawsuit against Donald Trump's The Apprentice prompted the show's producers to adopt an entry policy more welcoming to the disabled.

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