One more comeback? Rams’ stay depends on controversial stadium proposal

Jacob2It was a no-brainer—get the ball to Marshall Faulk.

The Rams were down by one point late in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game. This was their chance for a comeback. A short throw to Faulk would likely be enough to keep the drive going. If the play failed, a field goal could still give the Rams the lead.

After the snap, Faulk ran to the right. He looked over his shoulder just as quarterback Kurt Warner released the ball. But the pass wasn’t coming to Faulk. It was going deep to the left.

A moment later, the football sailed into the arms of receiver Ricky Proehl, who tumbled into the end zone. In their fifth season in St. Louis, the Rams were going to the Super Bowl.

More than 66,000 fans erupted in celebration inside in the Trans World Dome.

The $280 million dome had brought this moment to St. Louis, attracting the Rams to Missouri in 1995.

Today, the dome is having the opposite effect. This year, after failed negotiations to renovate the facility, team owner Stan Kroenke announced his intention to move the Rams back to Los Angeles to a planned 80,000 seat stadium.

The Rams’ lease says that the team is free to move out any time after 2015 if the dome isn’t among the eight best stadiums in the league. Unfortunately for St. Louis, there are now 19 NFL stadiums newer than the dome.

To stop a relocation, St. Louisan Dave Peacock, a former Anheuser-Busch executive with NFL connections, is leading the effort to build a $1 billion outdoor stadium with 62,000 seats along the city’s north riverfront. Peacock and a stadium task force have to finalize plans for a new stadium by the end of 2015, prior to a likely NFL owners’ vote on the Rams relocation in early 2016.

As of late August, Peacock and his team still had to secure public funding, finish acquiring riverfront property and get sponsorship commitments from the business community.

Despite those hurdles—and increasing opposition—Peacock says the task force has a good chance to get the Rams to come back to St. Louis beyond the current season.

“We’ve got a real opportunity to do something here a lot of people didn’t expect us to get done,” he says.

Bridge approach view_SD

Field or Dreams?

If St. Louis still has an NFL team in 2019, fans at the first home game will be in for a treat.

The new stadium will be right on the bank of the Mississippi River. Architects left the east side of the stadium open for a unique river overlook.  Views of the Arch and the new Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge are also part of the design—unlike the current closed-in dome.

“This will integrate much more into the fabric of our city,” Peacock says.

To make sure fans are comfortable, planners are measuring more than 100 metrics—including seat sizes, the number of restrooms, and the availability of concessions to ensure an improvement over the current dome. The plans also call for ample space outside the stadium for pre-game festivities, including a 20-acre park for tailgating.

“It will be a tailgating experience that’s unique in the NFL,” Peacock says.

Constructing this vision requires roughly $400 million in public financing from the state and the City of St. Louis. Yet many economists say stadium projects are not a good public investment.

“Economists who are not associated with the league, a team, or a political party trying to build a stadium are almost unanimously against stadium subsidies of any type,” says Victor Matheson, sports economist at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts.

St. Louis economist Patrick Rishe agrees.

“The argument against is that subsequent increases in long term economic benefits hardly ever exceed the public funding provided,” says Rishe, director of Washington University’s Sports Business Program and president of analytics firm Sportsimpacts.

Simply put, stadium projects don’t lead to big economic gains because they don’t draw new revenue into a region, the economists say.

Rams sidebar“The Rams’ loss would be the gain of the people selling tickets at the Arch, or the Cardinals, or restaurants in the area, or the riverboat gaming casinos,” Matheson says. “During those 10 years when St. Louis didn’t have a team, it’s not like St. Louis residents didn’t spend money on Sundays. They just spent it in different ways.”

Despite this argument, a study by the state’s Missouri Economic Research and Information Center found that constructing a new football stadium in St. Louis would generate $627 million in state tax revenue, netting the state $233 million in new funds through 2051. To its credit, the study attempts to only count sales tax revenue generated by out-of-state fans—people who likely would not spend money in Missouri if there was no NFL team in St. Louis.

“In reading through the economic impacts, I came up with the thought that the assumptions were fairly conservative rather than being overly optimistic,” says Kelley Martin, a Kansas City financial advisor who helped approve $15 million in tax credits for the stadium as a member of the Missouri Development Finance Board.

The state report also estimates that keeping the Rams in St. Louis would save 635 jobs and employ 2,754 people during stadium construction.

Where stadium backers and economists agree is that a new, privately-funded NFL stadium is unlikely in the St. Louis market. Some form of public financing is almost certainly necessary if a new stadium is to be built.

“Any deal where public funding is near 50 percent or less of the total project is a good deal in comparison to what typically happened for facilities built during the 1990s and 2000s,” Rishe says.

Political Football

Much of the public funding for the new stadium would come from an extension of the bonds used to pay for the existing dome.

The state currently pays $12 million annually in financing on the dome. The City of St. Louis and St. Louis County each contribute about $6 million annually.

Most of those payments would stop in 2021, when the current dome is paid off. However, the new stadium plan calls for extending those payments—minus those from St. Louis County—for another 30 years.

“You’re not increasing payments, you are basically extending the same payments you’ve been making,” Peacock says. “You’re not increasing taxes.”

Site plan RenderedHowever, the financing plan has drawn opposition because it doesn’t take the bond extension to a public vote or ask for approval from the state legislature. Instead, Governor Jay Nixon and the St. Louis Board of Aldermen will decide on the bond extension.

Two lawsuits have been filed to block the bond extension, including one suit filed by state lawmakers. Thus far, neither lawsuit has slowed the plan.

In the meantime, a group of state legislators, including some key budget leaders, has vowed to stop the $12 million payments for the new stadium if the governor extends the bonds without first seeking their approval.

“The governor is attempting to usurp the constitutional power granted to the legislature by holding hostage the good credit of the state of Missouri,” said Sen. Rob Schaaf, a Republican from St. Joseph.

House member Representative Jay Barnes says many of his colleagues share this opinion.

“Coming from a guy who is there every single day, there is a supermajority of legislators opposed to this project,” says Barnes, a Republican from Jefferson City.

With the governor and the St. Louis Board of Aldermen all being Democrats and with Republicans holding the vast majority of seats in the Missouri General Assembly, a political showdown seems inevitable.

These issues will make it challenging for Peacock and his team to finish the stadium plan by the end of the year, as required by the NFL.

Yet, the stadium task force is still moving ahead. Although it’s already late in the game, they still believe a Rams comeback is possible.

“We’re at the beginning of the fourth quarter and I would say that we are 70-75 yards down the field,” Peacock says. “We’ve just got to keep our eye on that end zone because that is what’s going to pull us through.”

Upper deck bowl view_SD

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