Back in the 1990s, the America’s Center Convention Complex in downtown St. Louis was regularly booking conventions that drew 17,000 people. And Darryl Jones, an African-American business owner who co-manages the food service for the complex, was hiring about 2,000 people for these events. For a four-day convention of this size, some of his associates would walk away with $4,500 to $5,000. It also meant that hotel rooms would be booked-up, and would also hire additional workers.
“That’s the type of economic impact you want to happen,” Jones said. “That money is going to turn over in the community.”
But for several years now, event planners have been passing over St. Louis for other cities. The America’s Center doesn’t have that “popping” vibe that millennial planners are looking for, Jones said.
Jones and others in the hospitality industry have been looking forward to the plans for a $175-million expansion to the convention complex, which received the final funding approval it needed in the spring. The convention center complex is responsible for generating $265 million in economic spending for the St. Louis region, according to the city’s comptroller.
However, the project has since stalled out at the “one yard line,” and the hospitality and construction industry are not happy, Jones said.
The City of St. Louis and St. Louis County currently pay a combined $12 million annually on the debt used to construct The Dome that is connected to the convention center – and the State of Missouri matches it with $12 million. However, those commitments expire in 2021, and the expansion could only move forward if both the city and county agree to continue making those $6 million annual payments. Both the county and city have passed the necessary legislation, but the problem now lies in the political struggle over the bond process.
In short, Comptroller Darlene Green has been the primary mover on convention center-related bonds since 1997, she said, and she was elected to have oversight of the city’s credit rating. Mayor Lyda Krewson initially questioned the cost of Green’s bond process, according to her chief of staff, and wanted to switch that process over to the St. Louis Development Corporation.
In a statement to The American, Green said, “If the mayor were right, the mayor would not be a problem and we would be moving forward.”
Krewson’s chief of staff Steve Conway then told The American, “The mayor believes that it’s too important to the convention center as a whole to not let the comptroller to do it the way she wants it. The mayor has told the comptroller to go ahead and issue the bonds.”
In response to this statement, Green said, “The Comptroller’s Office is finalizing the document on the structure of the Convention Center expansion bonds, and in the meantime we discovered an opportunity to reduce the debt of the outstanding 2017 convention center bonds, which we are also wrapping up.”
While the cause of the hold-up still remains unclear, it appears that the bond process is moving forward now, according to their statements.
The several-month delay in the bond process has created a number of hardships for the center, said Kitty Ratcliffe, president of Explore St. Louis, which operates it.
“We got two groups of customers that are concerned,” Ratcliffe said. “The groups that are booked in the convention center that are concerned about construction. They are asking for a timeline and how we are going to manage around that.”
And potential customers are also rightfully concerned. “We can’t give them a timeline (of completion), nor can we give the architectural plans,” Ratcliffe said. “We don’t have detailed floor plans. They are not going to commit to us until we can commit to them.”
Steve O’Loughlin, president and COO of Lodging Hospitality Management, which manages hotels downtown, said his group doesn’t understand the hitch, but it’s hurting downtown businesses.
“We want to start booking business, and the contractors want to put a shovel in the ground,” O’Loughlin said. “It’s not a matter of if it gets resolved, because it will get resolved. We are just hoping that it’s sooner rather than later.”