The Champ

Bill Bangert wanted a world-class domed stadium in St. Louis County, but all he got was a tiny town. Now the 77-year-old dreamer is back in Missouri with a few more nutty ideas.

The village of Champ sits on a plot of land overlooking the busy interchange where Interstates 70 and 270 meet in a tangled web of concrete. It isn't much. There's a massive limestone quarry carved into the hillside, owned by Fred Weber Inc.; a sprawling set of buildings belonging to Grace Church; and, beyond a metal gate bearing a faded "No Trespassing" sign, four neatly kept ranch-style houses lining one side of a street. A fifth home is under construction.

Champ is so small, in fact, that with just 14 residents, it ranks as the tiniest municipality in all of St. Louis County. There are no signs delineating its boundaries, no City Hall. And Champ's five-member board of trustees, which governs the village, comprises half of the adult population.

More than four decades ago, when Champ was officially incorporated, the village's founder, Bill Bangert, pictured more. Much more. In his mind's eye, he could imagine a massive 115,000-seat domed stadium that could accommodate virtually any sport -- baseball, football, track and field, swimming and diving, basketball or hockey -- and the largest of conventions. His vision included a huge restaurant with enough seats for 1,500 people, suspended nearly 400 feet in the air at the apex of the dome and accessed by moving sidewalks 600 feet long. His sports center would include a shopping mall with 2 million square feet of retail space and a 27,000-car underground parking garage that could be converted into a fallout shelter large enough to accommodate 600,000 people.

This wouldn't be just any stadium. "METRO," as he called it, was meant to be an Olympic stadium, an $87 million behemoth grandiose enough to lure the Pan American Games and the Summer Olympics. As a former mayor of Berkeley who'd founded a successful road-building company, Bangert was an imposing man who figured anything was possible. This was a man who had literally dodged a bullet fired through his car window and once competed in a national shot-put competition at Madison Square Garden while blind in both eyes, finishing in second place. He figured he could overcome the odds with his planned municipality, which he hoped to pay for using an unusual bond-financing scheme. He eagerly promoted his grand plan, taking a scale model of his stadium to meetings with potential backers in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and even far-away Yugoslavia. "I can't miss, absolutely," Bangert said in 1959, the year the village of Champ was incorporated. "I believe construction will start this spring, that it will be in operation by 1962."

But the stadium Bangert envisioned was never built, and numerous obstacles meant that Bangert would never develop his 300-acre village or adjoining industrial park, either. His 4,800-square-foot home built in the village was foreclosed on, and he was forced to file for bankruptcy. In the late 1970s, his personal and professional life in shambles, Bangert moved west to California to get away from it all. But the village of Champ remained on the map.

More than two decades passed before Bangert returned home to Missouri. He now lives in a comfortable frame home with a big front porch in rural Marthasville, more than 40 miles from Champ. And so much time has passed that his idea of a domed stadium is no longer futuristic; nor is his proposal to develop the vast floodplain, now called Riverport. Bangert, now 77, figures his timing was off. "They accused me of being 30 years ahead of my time, and they were just about right," he says, chuckling. But Bangert isn't sitting around reflecting on the past. He's still throwing the shot put and the discus and winning medals across the country, and his mind continues to churn out unusual ideas, albeit on a smaller scale -- from staging a "commemorative Olympics" in St. Louis in 2004 to displaying a long-forgotten religious painting at Busch Stadium.

The seeds for Bill Bangert's dream for the village of Champ were planted long before he took steps to incorporate the swath of farmland near the site of what was to be a major interchange of two highways. Athletics had long been important to Bangert, a man who stood 6-foot-5 and weighed 265 pounds then, and he dreamed of becoming the first athlete to compete in the Olympics in both boxing and track and field.

Bangert played football and baseball at Berkeley High School and, later, at the University of Missouri, where he established a reputation as a top track-and-field competitor as well, winning the NCAA discus throw in 1944 and 1945. He was also an accomplished singer, a baritone who attended his final year of college, at Purdue University, on a glee-club scholarship. He later met his wife, a former Muny Opera singer, while both were soloists at Central Presbyterian Church in Clayton.

Bangert continued to compete after college, holding the Amateur Athletic Union championship for the shot put in 1945 and 1946. He gained fame as a St. Louis Golden Gloves champion and hoped to qualify for the Olympics in boxing, but he lost in the semifinals of the Olympic Trials.

Bangert's family owned a successful road-building company and St. Louis County Transit Co. In 1947, he started Bill Bangert Construction Co. as a one-man hauling venture, but he would later go into business with his two brothers, including his twin, in Bangert Bros. Road Builders Inc. And he ventured into politics: Elected mayor of Berkeley in 1950, he served for more than six years. For Bangert, that time was punctuated by tremendous swings of fate.

At age 28, Bangert lost sight in his left eye because of a disease that caused recurrent hemorrhaging in the microscopic blood vessels surrounding his retina, resulting in scar tissue that caused the retina to detach. The disease soon affected his right eye as well, resulting in total blindness. He feared he'd never see again, until surgery in the spring of 1952 miraculously restored vision in his right eye. Bangert was able to see his daughter, 16-month-old Sharon, for the first time since shortly after her birth.

In 1954, Bangert decided to run for Congress as a Republican, promising the "singingest campaign you ever heard." When he received a threatening note warning him to "lay off the labor men in this campaign," it made the newspapers, though Bangert publicly dismissed the threat as the work of a crank. But two weeks later, in a bizarre incident, Bangert told Berkeley police that his car had been struck by a bullet as he was driving home around midnight, shortly after dropping off a babysitter. To this day, Bangert is unsure whether he was an intended target or the victim of an errant gunshot, but the .32-caliber bullet entered his left front window, hit a metal molding and ricocheted onto the seat. Splinters of glass from the window lodged in his left eye, requiring surgery. Luckily, Bangert says, his left eye was his blind eye.

Bangert lost the race for Congress, but he wasn't discouraged. He continued to serve as mayor of Berkeley until 1957, when he resigned after voters eliminated the mayor's seat and opted for a council/manager form of government. In 1958, he left his job at Bangert Bros. and announced his plans for the village of Champ.

Bangert had hatched a plan for what he described as a "controlled municipality." Combining his interests in government, business and sports, he came up with his idea for the domed stadium at the intersection of what was then the Mark Twain Expressway and a proposed circumferential highway -- what St. Louis now has in I-70 and I-270 -- about five miles west of Lambert Airport.

His idea was a novel one. He wanted to legally incorporate a small village of about 300 acres on undeveloped farmland, where the stadium would be built, and issue tax-exempt revenue bonds to finance construction of the stadium and a massive shopping mall. Rentals to businesses occupying the facilities would go to retiring the bonds, and the rent payments could be written off by the businesses as operating costs, resulting in a savings in federal income taxes.

The municipality would provide no fire or police services and would have just a skeleton crew of residents, including Bangert and his family -- just enough people to form an official municipal body to oversee the stadium and surrounding businesses. He hired an architect to draw up plans and brought a scale model to a meeting at the Chase Hotel of city and county business and government officials. He hoped to lure the 1964 Summer Olympics.

Bangert built a large four-bedroom French colonial for his family, complete with a circular drive surrounding a removable aluminum flagpole. Bangert sometimes tossed the flagpole like a caber -- he actually used it in several track meets. Naming the village was easy. He called it Champ. He explains: "Because of the connection to sports and athletics. It was the epitome of sports, so that's why I chose it." Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not -- depending on whom you ask -- it was also the last name of one of Bangert's early partners in the venture, Norman Champ, who served on the Berkeley Board of Aldermen when Bangert was mayor and was owner of Champ Spring Co. Champ the businessman bought 120 acres of what became Champ the village.

"I went to the [Missouri] Legislature and asked to incorporate the village, and they did, and the [St. Louis] County Council did, too," Bangert says. "It wasn't easy. We really incorporated mainly to build the stadium, the enclosed stadium. At that time, all we had in St. Louis was Sportsman's Park at Grand and Hebert in North St. Louis, and it was very obsolete."

"The idea caught on right away," Bangert says, "a restaurant 350 feet up in the dome, surrounded by a shopping center. Back then, all we had were the beginnings of shopping centers. This was one big giant mall that would have been bigger than any mall in the United States, even today. We had a lot of people excited about it. The shopping was combined with the stadium, so someone who didn't want to watch a football game could go shopping."

Back in 1959, when Champ was incorporated, then-County Supervisor James H.J. McNary called the project "a great thing for St. Louis County, its neighbors and the entire metropolitan area of St. Louis," according to newspaper accounts. George Halas Jr., son of then-Chicago Bears owner George Halas, was among the celebrities who attended dedication ceremonies. "It's a magnificent project and I hope it is built," he told the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. "These huge stadiums must come eventually." Representatives of five businesses declared their intentions to locate at the facilities once they were built. They included the president of the Chase Hotel and Edward and Donald Schnuck of Schnuck Markets.

But not everyone was enthusiastic. Much of the opposition came from downtown St. Louis interests: "They thought it would relocate the center of gravity of St. Louis and disturb Downtown Inc., etc., and they weren't going to have [a stadium] out in the county, that's for sure." Bangert says environmentalists also opposed development in the floodplain. And by the summer of 1959, Champ -- with a population of 14 residents, half of them Bangert and his family -- was dealt its first blow when Gov. James Blair vetoed a bill, approved by two-thirds of the Legislature, that would have allowed the village to issue $87.5 million in revenue bonds to build the stadium and shopping center. After that, things began to spiral downward.

Bangert, and others, say his talk of a domed stadium in the county spurred downtown businessmen to pursue more vigorously the idea of an open-air stadium in downtown St. Louis (Busch Stadium opened in 1966). And because of that, Bangert began to shift his focus somewhat, pushing to create an industrial park on the floodplain next to Champ. But even those plans were dealt one setback after another. The County Council refused to allow the annexation of 3,100 acres in 1961 and suggested that Champ disincorporate because its plans for the stadium were not materializing. A grand jury was convened to look into whether steps should be taken to dissolve the village, and the next year, Thomas Eagleton, then the state's attorney general, started legal proceedings to dissolve the village -- a case that ended up before the Missouri Supreme Court twice.

Eagleton says he can't recall all the details, but he describes Bangert as a "real promoter who concocted all kinds of pipe dreams that I deemed to be unrealistic."

The Supreme Court later ruled that although the village was legally incorporated, it could not annex the 3,100 acres, finding that the village was "not equipped to supply any services to the annexed area." But Bangert wouldn't give up, and in 1965 and 1967, Champ attempted to annex about 1,000 acres. Bangert continued to cling to his dream, going to New York in 1967 to bid for the 1971 Pan American Games. In 1968, he competed in the Highland Games in Scotland. He made a run for lieutenant governor, filing as a Democrat, with a platform that included bringing the Olympic Games to Missouri in 1976 and promoting horse racing as a means of subsidizing the school system and reducing taxes. Once again, Bangert lost the race.

In 1969, the Missouri Supreme Court again ruled against the annexations. The long court fights doomed Bangert's efforts to develop Champ. "When the Supreme Court denied our annexation, what could I do with the land?" Bangert says. "I couldn't sell it as industry. I couldn't develop it. I couldn't do anything with it." And although the R.C. Can Co. relocated to Champ, no other industries followed. Bangert filed for bankruptcy in 1971, listing debts of $3.3 million. He lost his home, the French colonial where he and his wife raised their five daughters, and every bit of land he owned in Champ.

Bangert acknowledges that his scheme was troubling to some. "In my case, it was the solo enterprise they objected to, so I was my own worst enemy," he says. "They felt no one person should have control of 3,000 acres and develop it with public financing." Still, he has no regrets: "I think I did all I could."

Norm Champ Jr., whose father bought 120 acres of what became Champ, describes Bangert's plan as a "house of cards" built on other people's money. He says his father got involved with Bangert when the family's land, near Lambert Airport, was being taken for use by the expanding airport: "They kept taking our land away and our land away, and when they do that, you can reinvest, and we bought this land and sold it for a profit. [Bangert] came up with this proposition to create Champ, Mo., and to build a stadium and incorporate it into a city and invite the Olympics. We got involved," Champ says, "because Champ is a more Olympic name than Bangert."

But it all fell apart. Bangert, Champ says, never had the money to exercise the options on the adjoining 1,500 acres and gave one landowner $30,000 in earnest money using a worthless check, telling him: "Don't cash it -- it will bounce." In another instance, Champ says, Bangert "had this trench dug, and he was going to have a canal in from the river, and I said, 'Bill, how did you afford to get this trench dug?' and he said, 'I gave him an option on the land,' and I said, 'Bill, you don't own the land.'" (Bangert says he did write a $30,000 check to the landowner but says it wasn't supposed to be cashed unless he exercised the option. As for the trench's being paid for with an option, Bangert says, Champ "has got something mixed up.")

Champ says a combination of factors killed Bangert's dream. "When the state declared it couldn't be incorporated and the county fought this thing of building the buildings and having them be tax-free, it was just beat down," he says. "There were too many people against it. It ended with Bill filing for bankruptcy. Bill's fun, he's interesting, he has great ideas. He's a character out of this world. But I have a saying about a lot of people, especially in politics: If they tell me the sun's going to come up tomorrow morning, I'm going to check, because, odds are, it won't."

Champ does believe the stadium was a good idea. And he credits Bangert's domed stadium with pushing downtown forces into action. "The timing was such [that] it really put Busch Stadium on the map. It really moved them to go ahead with Busch Stadium. It is what finally pushed them over the edge, and I give him credit for that."

For Bangert, the professional losses took a toll on his personal life and nearly ended his marriage. In the late 1970s, he headed west to California to get away from it all. "It was pretty tough," he says. "After a while, a certain bitterness sets in. I felt if I were going to get on with my life, I had to get away from this whole thing and start over." He moved to Anaheim, managed commercial properties and lived in the shadow of Disneyland.

He continued to take part in shot-put and discus competitions, and he and his wife regularly sang together in Christian operas and, once, on Robert Schuller's Hour of Power. He wrote a screenplay based on his life and his lifelong romance with his wife, figuring he might as well while he was so close to Hollywood. He pitched it to Disney.

Bangert describes his story: "It was the idea of staging the Olympic Games; I was a national champion in track and field and boxing -- that and the romantic angle of my wife and I and our singing together in opera. I think it carries forth a lot of romance," he says. "It could make a very romantic story. I see a lot of junk on television today that has no storyline whatsoever. It doesn't take a genius to figure out there is a lot of human interest in that."

Disney wasn't interested.

Over time, road-builder Fred Weber Inc. bought up much of the land in Champ and continued digging in what is now a massive limestone quarry. Champ remained a municipality -- one of more than 90 incorporated small cities in St. Louis County -- and though the village's population has fluctuated over the years, today it stands at 14. It is still governed by a five-member board of trustees. Mary Kinsella, who has lived in Champ for 18 years, is the clerk. Her husband, Matthew, is the chairman. He works for Fred Weber, and they rent one of four homes in Champ, also owned by Fred Weber.

"The thing about the village," Kinsella says, "is, it's like living in the country but being in the suburbs. We have deer, coyote, wild turkeys in October. It's kind of removed from the city atmosphere, yet it's right here at 70 and 270," she says. "We still function as a village; we have a monthly meeting with the board of trustees, and business goes on as usual. We just keep plodding along." After elections, Kinsella says, it isn't unusual to get calls from the media inquiring about Champ's 100 percent voter turnout. But with 10 voters, getting good turnout isn't that hard, she says.

Anyone driving by Champ might miss it in a blink. "How would you know you were in Champ?" Kinsella asks. "It doesn't have any distinguishing factors that would say, 'I just went through the village of Champ.' There are no signs that say you are in the village of Champ. You wouldn't know you were in something different," she says. Kinsella, in fact, doesn't even tell people she lives in Champ. "Goodness, no," she says. "Then I have to explain it to people, and they just stare at me."

Most of Champ today is, quite literally, a hole in the ground, and what may be most remarkable is the massive development that has sprouted up around it, including the hotels and office buildings of Riverport, Riverport Amphitheatre and other Earth City development. As for Bangert, there's nothing in the village he founded that honors him, but Kinsella says residents have heard of him: "I never met Bill Bangert, but I knew about him when I moved back up here; people in general know about him, from reading about it." Out of curiosity, she says, "I looked up stuff in the Post from way back when."

Back in the late '50s, many questioned the wisdom of Bangert's idea of commercial and industrial development in that floodplain -- yet that is precisely what occurred in the years after Bangert left. "They said I was 30 years ahead of my time, and it was about 30 years before it took off," he says. "There is no way I could have held onto it that long, but if they'd left me alone, it would've taken off like a house on fire!" Bangert says his proposed form of financing for constructing new facilities -- municipal bonds paid for by the leases of the business that occupy the facilities -- resembles today's tax-increment financing (TIF). "It's all based on the same thing, that taxes generated from that project go to the city for a specific purpose, and that's what they're doing." Bangert was among the region's first advocates of urban sprawl -- he proposed a massive shopping mall 20 minutes from downtown long before malls had sprouted on the suburban landscape, and his idea for a domed stadium preceded the country's first, the Houston Astrodome.

Because of his seemingly outlandish ideas, Bangert "wasn't treated very nicely by the media," says Carl Stifel, who was involved in some of the real-estate deals involving Champ. "He was ahead of his time in his ideas, but a lot of them were very, very good."

Former St. Louis County Executive Gene McNary remembers when Bangert ran against former County Supervisor Lawrence Roos. "I remember the debate, because Bill Bangert was quite a character. He had gone to the Scottish Highland Games and was some kind of he-man discus-thrower or shot-putter. I think he was exceptional, and he went away with a medal. I don't know the whole story, but he was famous for that, and he talked about it in the debate -- how he'd won all these medals and he was happy about it but he'd really be happier if he was elected county supervisor." Bangert lost.

But, McNary says, as crazy as some of Bangert's ideas may have seemed decades ago, they don't seem so crazy now: "It was so far off, and, yet, where is the village of Champ? That's where Riverport is. Today there is an amphitheater there, and that's where I was going to put a domed stadium in order to keep the football Cardinals in town. So Bill Bangert wasn't so far off with his ideas, but he sure was pretty far ahead of his time."

After an absence of nearly 20 years from Missouri, Bangert and his wife, Rosemary, returned in 1997 to be closer to two of his five daughters, one of whom now lives down the street from him and another who lives in OFallon, Mo. At his home in Marthasville, he still works out for at least an hour every day, throwing a discus in the yard that his dog, Jake, fetches for him. He exercises on a treadmill, ski machine and stationary bike in his basement. More than three dozen medals hang on the wall -- all of which Bangert won after he turned 70. He says it is athletics that has helped him get through his many defeats. "Competition has been an antidote for me to deal with all these problems," he says. "I could come home and work out for an hour and get rid of all that tension. Athletics really saved my life."

He has kept busy competing in events across the country and in Canada, in senior and masters games, regularly finishing in first or second place. Rosemary was recently Mrs. Senior Missouri. Bangert takes some credit for it: "I was competing in an event in Columbia, and I heard about this contest, and I said, 'Do you mind if I enter my wife?' She was visiting my daughter in Florida, and I called her up on the phone and said, 'I entered you in this contest for Mrs. Senior Missouri.' She said, 'Oh my goodness.' She wasn't too happy about it." But Bangert notes that she took home the big trophy, now prominently displayed in his basement workout room. "I won my event, and she won hers."

In 1998, Bangert ran unsuccessfully as a U.S. Taxpayers Party candidate for Warren County presiding commissioner, saying he hoped to become the oldest elected official to win a world championship in the World Veterans Games. And he has continued to churn out ideas. One involved creating a 200-acre island at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers with a massive fountain that could shoot a stream of water more than 1,000 feet in the air, a monument to the bicentennial of the 1804 Lewis and Clark expedition. "People come from all over to see things animated," he says. "People are always interested in fountains and things like that." The idea got him a story in the Post-Dispatch, but that's about it.

Bangert has also written letters with his idea for a "Commemorative Olympics" he would like to see staged at Washington University in 2004 in celebration of the centennial of the 1904 Olympics held in St. Louis. The games, he says, would be senior games but open to anyone in the world who wanted to compete. He figures the medals could be created to look like the medals won in 1904. Besides, he hopes to compete in those games. He'll be 80 years old.

The idea that has really captured Bangert's fancy is one he believes could rectify a 97-year-old slight to a Polish artist who came to America in 1904 to show his work at the World's Fair.

Bangert learned about the artist, Jan Styka, about 10 years ago, while still living in California. He and his wife were invited to give a concert on the life of Christ, based on African-American folk songs, at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, Calif. They performed in front of a massive painting, called "The Crucifixion," that was 195 feet long and 45 feet high.

According to a history of the painting compiled by Forest Lawn, the painting took seven years to complete. Styka received an invitation to display that painting, and others, at the 1904 World Exposition in St. Louis. But when he arrived in New York, he was told there was no facility at the fair that could house a painting as large as "The Crucifixion." He left the painting at a warehouse in New York and traveled on to St. Louis, where, on the last night of the fair, all of his canvases were destroyed in a fire. When he returned to New York, he learned customs officials had seized his huge painting for nonpayment of duty. He never saw the painting again.

Years later, Hubert Eaton, who founded the Forest Lawn Memorial Parks in Southern California, heard about the painting and began searching for it. In 1944, one of Eaton's representatives found it in a Chicago warehouse, wrapped around a 60-foot telephone pole. He bought it, brought the painting to California and built a special building to house it.

Bangert believes St. Louis citizens should get a chance to see the painting. "Nobody knows of this," he says. "It's sort of a hidden venture, and the only reason it was not shown was it was too big to be seen, so it lay in a warehouse." His idea involves creating a smaller replica painting measuring about 20 feet long that could be displayed at Busch Stadium in a 10-inch-deep lightbox with a pedestal describing the painting's history. The painting's actual dimensions could be marked off with some kind of tape so people could see just how big the actual painting is. "It could be done very cheaply," he says, "and it would draw people downtown and from all over the world." Bangert has written and spoken to representatives of St. Louis 2004 about his idea, but, so far, it hasn't gone far.

"I got a price on having the original [reproduced], and it was less than $10,000. It's a pittance, and I suggested it to 2004 committee. I said I'd arrange to get financing for it, from athletes and such interested in such a thing, if only they would get permission from Busch Stadium to put it there. They're going to tear it down anyway a year or two after 2004 anyway, if their plans go ahead." But he hasn't gotten much response from officials with 2004. "They said they wished me luck on it, and so forth."

Peter Sortino, president of St. Louis 2004, is unfamiliar with the details of Bangert's idea but says the proposal sounds "very interesting." As planning for a 2004 celebration moves forward, Sortino says, it will be given some consideration. "There are going to be a lot of people involved in the celebration -- it's much bigger than me considering it," he says. "There are going to be a lot of ideas, and they have to be vetted to a certain degree. This is one idea that could possibly be something."

Displaying a replica of a long-forgotten religious painting is likely Bangert's last grand idea. And this is a man full of unusual ideas. When he dies, for instance, he wants to be cremated and to have his remains put into the objects that represent the track-and-field events he's competed in -- such as a shot put -- and given as "a memento" to his daughters.

But of all his ideas, Champ remains his favorite. Every time he drives into St. Louis, Bangert says, he makes a point of cruising by the village. All that is left of his home is a driveway leading to a precipitous drop-off at the edge of the quarry. Still, Bangert views Champ as his greatest accomplishment.

"It will always be there," Bangert says. "They may have wiped me out, but they can't wipe away the history of it. It's there. I started it, and I don't care who reaped all the profits -- they can't deny that it's there."

And Bangert says he has no bitterness over the way things turned out. "There was a time when I felt an injustice in not necessarily sharing in the wealth it created but in sort of the propriety of seeing it through," he says. "But I found out a long time ago, as an athlete, you have to lose before you can become a real champion. You have to experience losses. That was one of them. And, at 77 years old today, I don't have any regrets at all. God has been very good to me."

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