House of Cards

So the Cardinals are taking bids. Good luck.

May 22, 2002 at 4:00 am
Now that Missouri lawmakers have rejected a stadium subsidy for the St. Louis Cardinals, it's time to see the color of Illinois money.

Downtown St. Louis remains the best location for a new ballpark -- even the Cardinals say that much. Taking team president Mark Lamping at his word, the Cardinals have already spent millions on architects and engineers to design a new stadium next door to Busch on a site already owned by the team. That work halted as of Friday, Lamping said, when the Missouri Legislature balked at giving the team $100 million in subsidies.

"The only thing that has changed between a day ago and 6 p.m. today is that downtown St. Louis is no longer the only site we will be considering," Lamping said less than an hour after legislators adjourned. The Cards, he sniffed, will now consider proposals from any interested party in its eight-county market area.

Of course, the chances that a new stadium could spring from a cow pasture in Franklin County or a cornfield in Monroe is about as likely as the plot of Field of Dreams. A stadium in St. Louis County is also a long shot. Just listen to county leaders.

Mac Scott, spokesman for County Executive Buzz Westfall, says his boss remains willing to chip in $40 million in hotel-motel taxes for a downtown ballpark.

"This is money that's already being collected in a tax that is designed for a project like this," Scott says. "Obviously we'd rather see a stadium downtown first and in Missouri second."

Ditto for County Council Chairman Kurt Odenwald (R-5th District). Odenwald doesn't want the county mixed up in a bidding war for the Cardinals. "I'm not going to be in that game at all," he says. "I don't want to try to entice the Cardinals to leave downtown to come out to some county location at all. I want to see us support regional projects."

No county municipality has come forward with a credible bid. Maryland Heights, a leading candidate in the '80s for the football stadium that eventually went downtown, has plenty of hotels and available land, but the city isn't answering Lamping's call.

"We don't have anyone scurrying to put together plans of any sort," says city spokesman Paul Thompson. "Nobody's out there going, 'Let's bring the Cardinals here.' We had always hoped they would stay downtown."

This united front comes as stadium boosters brace themselves for the pitch that's sure to come from the Metro East. Together, the city and county hope to swing an offer no one else can match. Separately, they risk the chance that East St. Louis will snatch the team through a combination of lower taxes and subsidies, perhaps using tax-increment financing.

A TIF in Illinois is fraught with difficulty. For one thing, a TIF-subsidized stadium in East St. Louis would have to be privately owned and taxable, just like Busch. Unlike Missouri, where the size of a TIF subsidy can be calculated on the basis of a range of taxes, Illinois law requires that TIFs be based solely on what a project will generate in property taxes. Illinois doesn't allow TIF money to be directly spent on stadium construction and also caps the amount that can be used to repay debt at 30 percent of interest costs. In Illinois, TIF subsidies generally go for infrastructure improvements such as road work. "In our case, our money was used for site assemblage, which is a legitimate use under TIF, and for public improvements, which is a public use," says David Dobson, economic-development director for Peoria, which has partially funded a new minor-league ballpark with TIF money. "In Illinois, that's certainly the rule. There are probably other states where the rules are a little bit different, where you can make [TIF] investments into private-sector transactions."

Steve Friedman, a Chicago development consultant (and Cubs fan), questions what advantage the Cardinals would realize by moving across the Mississippi. "From St. Louis' standpoint, you've got all kinds of other tools on the Missouri side," Friedman says. "You've got tax abatement and other things. If it's going to be a private stadium, you can get a similar effect, potentially."

By combining forces -- and $100 million in subsidies -- the city and county hope to trump anything Illinois comes up with. Whatever Plan B for St. Louis turns out to be, it doesn't have to beat Illinois on a dollar-for-dollar basis. Downtown is the team's preferred site because of its central location and its proximity to corporations and white-collar fans who can afford luxury boxes and premium club seats [Rushton, "Location, Location, Location," May 8].

Odenwald suggests that the city may have to give the Cardinals a larger tax break to keep the team. The city has already offered to reduce the 5 percent ticket tax to 1.5 percent after the first $85 million in ticket sales, but Odenwald also suggests that the city, which in 2000 collected $9.4 million in taxes from Busch, may have to relinquish more. "I'm not the mayor, but if the team looks as if it's going out of the city, they're going to lose it all," he says.

A spokesman for Mayor Francis Slay didn't return calls, but other city officials are ready to play hardball.

"We can't go any further than this," says Aldermanic President Jim Shrewsbury. "The reason I supported all this was because of the revenue we were getting from the ticket tax. You take that current or that future revenue flow away, it's not that good of a deal. It was a four-legged stool. One of the legs is gone, and the city should not have to pay to replace that fourth leg."

Shrewsbury doesn't think the Cards will find any easy deals in Illinois.

"If they were to go to Illinois, they would have to make up what St. Louis County and the city were willing to give them and what the state of Missouri was willing to give them," he says. "I think that is a viable option for them, but they're going to face the same struggle before the Illinois Legislature that they faced before the Missouri Legislature. Here, they had to deal with people from Potosi. In Illinois, they're going to have to deal with people from Cook County.

"You're going to see the same struggle all over again."