America's Center

The plan for a $175-million expansion for the America’s Center Convention Center in downtown St. Louis has stalled – after NAACP leaders raised concerns about employing minorities and county residents on the construction site.

Councilwoman Hazel Erby tabled her bill (#73) on Tuesday night that would authorize the county to continue contributing $6 million annually in bond payments over 40 years, using funds from a 3.5 percent hotel tax passed in 1990. The City of St. Louis and the county currently pay a combined $12 million annually on the debt used to construct The Dome, that’s connected to the convention center – and the state matches it with $12 million. However, those commitments expire in 2021, and the expansion can only move forward if both the city and county agree to continue making those $6 million annual payments. The city passed the necessary legislation earlier this year, and County Executive Steve Stenger supports the plan.

Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis City NAACP, said Bill 73 does not ensure that the county’s minority participation goals would be enforced on the convention expansion project. Because funds from both governments are at play, Pruitt is pushing the council to establish regional goals for employing minority workforce and contractors on the project.

“As a council you have the full authority to negotiate a better deal, and you have a fiduciary responsibility to allocate county funds in a way that benefits county residents,” stated Pruitt in a March 18 letter to the council. 

Erby said she shares the concern because she and Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray championed Bill 350 to establish the county’s minority participation goals in 2017. At the March 19 council meeting, Erby said she wanted to take a few weeks to review legal opinions regarding this issue.

“I know that’s difficult for the people who are trying to get this done,” Erby said at the meeting. “And I know there are some time frames that need to be met, but there are questions that need to be answered.”

The other legal opinion the council will review is about whether they are legally bound to spend the hotel tax money on hospitality or if they can allocate it towards repairing roads and other needs, a question raised by Councilman Ernie Trakas at the Tuesday meeting.

Jack Thomas Jr., the county’s new chief diversity officer, said that he believes the city and county will work together on establishing minority participation goals. The two governments recently passed legislation regarding how they employ minority and female workers, city residents, apprentices and minority and women-owned businesses on publicly-funded construction projects. While the numbers are different, Thomas believes they would adopt the highest goals possible. 

Kitty Ratcliffe, who is president of the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Convention, also known as Explore St. Louis, said the 42-year-old complex is in dire need of upgrades. The expansion will help sustain and grow visitor traffic, she said.

“On an average, we have $265 million of new money that’s coming into St. Louis every year from conventions at America’s Center,” Ratcliffe told St. Louis Public Radio, adding that about half of that sum is spent on hotels, with the remainder going to restaurants, transportation, entertainment and other area services and purchases.

Among other upgrades, the expansion plan calls for a much larger ballroom that could compete with other cities’ facilities – ballrooms that span between 40,000 and 60,000 square feet, Ratcliffe said. The existing America’s Center ballroom is about 28,000 square feet.

In the NAACP’s letter to the council, Pruitt also raised concerns about promotion discrimination that often plaques the hospitality industry. Pruitt said that Explore St. Louis has not provided the NAACP with information about the minority makeup of their upper management.

“Explore St. Louis has refused to paint a picture of its top management by race, gender, pay, and the amount of time in their present position,” Pruitt stated in the letter to the council.

At the meeting on March 19, Explore St. Louis’ attorney Robert Wallace said that there was some “confusion” regarding the organization's compliance with the NAACP’s Sunshine requests about their workforce diversity. He said the request was “not specific,” but Explore St. Louis leaders offered to meet with the NAACP. 

“We can’t provide records that don’t exist but can answer questions if they are appropriate to be answered,” Wallace testified at the council meeting.

All 30 members of Explore St. Louis’ upper management team attended the meeting and stood up at one point. Ratcliffe told The St. Louis American that 50 percent of the senior team are women, 30 percent are African American and one percent is Hispanic – and that information was provided to the NAACP and the council.

Ratcliffe said in her comments to the council that Explore St. Louis has a “very diverse workforce. It’s representative of our community.”

“Mr. Pruitt has raised some questions about them I’m not sure why because they actually are a great team,” Ratcliffe said. “We’ve been accused of trotting out people of color just to impress you. That’s absolutely not true. What we wanted was to impress you with business in the county.”

One of the black business owners who testified on Tuesday was Darryl Jones, a partner in Culinary Hospitality Partners which operates the food and beverage services at America’s Center. Of his 236 full-time employees, 30 percent of them reside in the county. Of his $4.2 million in payroll costs, $1.25 million is paid to county residents.

“We have the opportunity to employ hundreds of people that live in the city and the county, and many of those are minorities,” Jones said. “I urge you to approve the expansion project for the convention center in hopes we can engage in some of the larger conventions that we’ve missed out in years past.”

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