The Deal of the Century

Convention and Visitors Commission honcho John Ferrara gets hot and bothered about the RFT's treatment of the Trans World Dome deal; plus, other St. Louis follies and foibles

Feb 23, 2000 at 4:00 am
John Ferrara, Pasta House Co. impresario and chairman of the Convention and Visitors Commission, was fed up trying to explain that when talking about the Trans World Dome, it's better and more fair to say it cost $280 million and not mention the real payout of $720 million the taxpayers will fork over during the 30-year length of the note. St. Louis County Executive Buzz Westfall agreed.

To prove their point, they wanted to know how much the abode of your humble narrator cost. When told that the selling price of the brick two-family flat in the city was 57,000 simoleons, Ferrara was unimpressed. "You should live in a phone booth, then," he blurted, dissing the quality and status of shelter that that much money could buy. Apparently -- in real estate, at least -- for Big John, size does matter.

Westfall and Ferrara, two PSL-holders who even went to New Orleans for a Rams road game this season, were in the Khorassan Room Monday night, waiting for the premiere of the NFL Films Rams-highlight video. They obviously were not fans of RFT coverage of Georgia Frontiere's grandiose return to her hometown. Westfall said the newspaper has an ulterior motive in mentioning the total cost of the dome, including the financing costs, instead of just stating how much was financed.

"Why would you talk that way about this when nobody talks that way about buying a house or a building? I know why you do it -- because you want to put a negative spin on it. There's no other explanation. It's nonsense," Westfall said.

But if 30 years of mortgage payments on a $57,000 house end up totaling about $150,000, isn't stating the whole amount a better way to reflect reality?

"It's not reality. It's bullshit what you're saying," Westfall said. Ferrara backed him up: "It's totally erroneous. It's not fair. It's totally unfair." Westfall went back to the house analogy.

"When somebody, in a casual conversation, when you're not news reporting or looking for some negative spin, asks what you paid for your house, you tell them 150 grand? The answer is no," Westfall said. "Since we don't any other time, why does The Riverfront Times do it now?"

Ferrara had a quick answer: "It's misleading and you do it on purpose." He added some career advice: "When you went to journalism school, you should have studied economics." This from a man who calls the Rams coming to St. Louis "the deal of the century." Let's be glad that century is almost over.

The proof that the dome was needed for the convention center, Ferrara insisted, is that it's in use about 240 days a year. On those days, some part of the dome is being used for a show or being used to set up or tear down an exhibit." The domed stadium is part of the convention center, with 240 use days," Ferrara said. All right, all right. "No, it's not all right, because you guys don't listen. It's really irritating. We have 240 use days this year -- why don't you count those?"

But do we really need a domed stadium to help house an auto show?

"You need a facility that size to do that. You need the floor space," Ferrara persisted. But a domed stadium?

"You do that for the football team," Ferrara said. "The football team has value. You do the rest of it for the football team."

So we were back to the football team.

"Of course we're back to the football team," said Westfall. The county executive believes that the dome was worth it even if the Rams were a "mediocre football team," which they are not, of course. Buzz is looking for winning Rams teams for years to come.

"I would have been happy to have NFL football here if they had been mediocre for 10 years. We are better off with a mediocre NFL team than without one at all, and the stadium serves as a convention center. Beyond the wildest dreams, it's served its dual purpose. There wasn't any question when we did it; we had to do it that way or it could never have sold. In hindsight, it worked out beautiful."

Will Buzz back the Cardinals' bid for a new stadium? "The trouble with the Cardinals situation is that the stadium looks nicer now than it ever did. That's only what the fans see," says Westfall, who says he will support a new baseball stadium "if the Cardinals are willing to put up enough of their own money -- and I don't know what "enough' is. There is no way I would support a stadium entirely financed by the public. If they put a huge chunk of money toward it and they could do other things besides a stadium, like a development area, I'll support it. I'll support it. It would mean that much to downtown."

Another elected official on hand for the premiere of the video was U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft, who was willing to take some credit for the dome but distanced himself from the Cardinals dilemma. "I signed the measure that resulted in the TWA Dome, and I think it was the right thing to do at the time. I think it's been good for the community," Ashcroft said, but he dodged the Cardinals issue. "The governor and the Legislature will have to take a look at that and weigh the advantages and see what the opportunities are."

As for the film, it's what you would expect from NFL Films, the propaganda arm of the league: No downers. No bad news. No replays of the referee's decision to rule Bert Emanuel's catch incomplete -- that might go into a video of Tampa Bay highlights. There's lots of slow motion, the typical NFL Films crescendoing soundtrack and at least three views of each big, big play.

Perhaps the person with most reason to smile Monday night was KSDK's Mike Bush, sports honcho at Channel 5 and the first-year radio voice of the Rams. For each sound clip of him used in the NFL highlight film, Bush got 50 bucks. It was hard to keep track, but chances are there were five or six samples of Bush's radiocasts. The lagniappe was a surprise for Bush. "It's a few hundred bucks, but it's more than I thought it was going to get."

And more than most folks around town will be reaping from the season.

LEMME PULL SOME JOBS OUTTA MY HAT: Richard Fleming, the big kahuna at the RCGA, isn't pleased that the Post-Dispatch's Jerry Berger reported that average monthly employment in the metro area only had grown by a "scant" 1,500 people between 1996 and 1999. That would jeopardize a bonus for Fleming, Berger said. Fleming responded Wednesday by telling a luncheon crowd at the St. Louis Association of Realtors that Berger's numbers are baloney. According to Fleming's stats, more than 91,000 jobs have been created in the metro area since 1995 -- and, by golly, we're on track to hit 100,000 by the end of this year. Of course, as is often the case, the truth is somewhere in the middle. A check with Randall Clark, analyst with the Missouri Division of Workforce Development, shows that the 12-county metro area had an annual average nonfarm wage and salaried employment of 1,246,000 in 1995. That grew to 1,319,500 in 1999, up about 73,500 jobs. The bad news is that the rising tide hasn't lifted all boats. St. Louis County, for example, has seen a 9.3 percent increase in the number of jobs, or about 54,600 jobs (third-quarter 1999 figures compared with third-quarter 1995 figures), but the city of St. Louis has lost 22,500, or 8.4 percent.

FLOTSAM AND JETSAM: Congrats to the Rev. Lawrence Biondi, S.J., who, at least in this one instance, has come around to The Riverfront Times' way of thinking. Biondi sent a broadside to the Grand Center board of directors with a Feb. 15 letter saying he was "disillusioned and frustrated by the leadership in Grand Center. There has been virtually no progress on major initiatives." Could it be that it took this long for "Father Capone" to read Eddie Silva's same assessment in "Grand Illusion" (RFT, April 21)?... And since when is it another sign of player greed and the imminent demise of baseball when one of its superstar players accepts $30 million less in a contract so that he can play for a small-market team? Guess it's when the sportswriter is the daily paper of record's Dan O'Neill and he's writing about Ken Griffey's turning down a $148 million contract in Seattle to accept a $116 million contract in Cincinnati. O'Neill called it "extortion" and said that "money, greed and indulgence have turned baseball into a perverse country club." This coming from a guy who usually covers golf, which isn't even a sport. It's a hobby, a pastime. Puh-leeze, stay at the country club.

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