Tax extension sets stage for St. Louis convention center expansion


St. Louis and St. Louis County officials are turning their attention to financing details for a $175 million expansion and makeover of the city’s convention center complex after approving tax measures to pay for it.

The County Council voted last week to extend hotel/motel taxes after existing debts are retired, joining the city’s Board of Aldermen, which signed off on the plan in December. City Comptroller Darlene Green also supports the plan.

St. Louis city and county officials have agreed on a tax deal to fund renovations of the city’s convention center.

“The next step for the project will be the development of cooperating agreements between St. Louis city and St. Louis County regarding the financing packages. Once this has been completed a potential timeframe and process for securing the project bonds will be determined,” the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission said in a statement. The commission operates the complex.

No timeline was offered but commission spokesman Anthony Paraino said the group is aiming to move forward as soon as possible.

The financing plan calls for issuing 40-year bonds that would repaid with city and county revenue collected from a 3.5% hotel tax. That revenue currently goes to repay bonds issued to finance construction of the former Edward Jones Dome stadium. The state pays $12 million and the county and city each pay $6 million.

That venue — now called the Dome at America’s Center — is part of the convention complex and was home to the National Football League’s Rams before the team moved to Los Angeles in 2016. When the team fled, about $144 million was still owed on the bonds which are fully retired in 2021.

The expansion of the America’s Center Convention Complex calls for 92,000 square feet of new exhibit space that will enlarge the current exhibit hall layout to accommodate larger events, a new 65,000-square-foot signature multipurpose ballroom and meeting area, and outdoor pavilion, and additional service and loading space and renovations to existing facilities.

Supporters tout the need to stem the decline of event bookings and attract new events due to expansions and upgrades recently completed, now underway, or being contemplated by other cities. The convention center dates to 1977.

“We are pleased that the community has come together to support this critical project,” said the commission’s president, Kathleen “Kitty” Ratcliffe. The convention and tourism industry generates $5.8 billion annually, officials said.

The county vote was close at 4-3 with one “no” vote coming from a member who questioned the project’s funding and two others who questioned the use of revenue for a separate recreation center project.

Local government watchdog Tom Sullivan called on the county to put the tax revenue to other use. “I believe all the funds from the hotel/motel tax should be spent in St. Louis County after 2021,” he told county board members.

Sullivan questioned whether the benefits would pay off and cited the failure of the Dome to live up to tax expectations. The city, county, and state are paying off the Dome debt with the city and county piece coming from the hotel/motel tax.

“It has been debated whether funds from the hotel-motel tax can be used for general revenue purposes. The enabling statute makes it clear they can. But the Convention & Visitors Commission apparently had the County Council in 1990 change the required form of ballot language to language that clearly does not conform to the law — but gives the money to them. Spending for general revenue purposes — after Dome obligations were met — was part of the deal,” Sullivan said.

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