Ballpark failure makes Cardinals consider move

Sunday, May 19, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The worst part for Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder about losing his field of dreams is the way it happened.

Had the House of Representatives voted down his stadium funding legislation, the defeat would have stung, but the chamber would have spoken.

Instead the House never got the chance to debate the bill -- which included a new St. Louis Cardinals ballpark -- before lawmakers went home for the year on Friday.

And that is tough for Kinder to swallow. He'll never know for sure what the outcome would have been.

"It has been my experience that some people who do not want to vote on an issue will tell leaders on both sides that they are 'no' votes until put to the test," Kinder said. "Then some of them end up surprising you."

Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, went to the wall for the $644 million package, which also included projects in Kansas City, Branson and Springfield, despite heavy criticism from some members of his own party and substantial opposition to stadium subsidies among his rural constituents.

However, he steadfastly believed it was the right thing to do, a necessary move to keep the Cardinals from leaving the city of St. Louis -- an option the team is now vigorously pursuing.

"I regard that as a calamity," Kinder said. "It was worth the expenditure of a lot of blood, sweat and political capital to prevent. I failed."

Determined to build

Team president Mark Lamping, in a statement to news media issued Friday, said the Cardinals will explore other locations in the St. Louis area and made it clear a new ballpark will be built -- somewhere.

"While the failure of the legislature to act prevents the state from participating in the funding of the new ballpark, that fact will have absolutely no impact on the Cardinals' decision to move forward with plans to replace Busch Stadium," Lamping said.

Ever since the ballpark proposal was first floated in 2000, it has been controversial.

Supporters presented it as an economic development effort that would revitalize downtown St. Louis and provide revenue to the state in excess of the proposed taxpayers' contribution. A companion development -- Ballpark Village -- was supposed to produce much of that growth with a large-scale residential and commercial complex.

Opponents derided those claims as wishful thinking. An oft-cited March study by the Missouri Department of Economic Development showed the state would lose money on the deal from 2005, when the ballpark would open, until 2011, when the village would be completed. After that, the project would spur economic growth in the city, the report said, but primarily by diverting activity from other parts of the St. Louis region.

It didn't help that many lawmakers were still bristling over a 1990s deal to build the downtown football stadium where the Rams now play. The facility continues to cost the state millions a year in debt payments, but hasn't delivered the promised benefits.

The last version of the $346 million Cardinals project called for the state to ante up $7 million a year beginning in 2005 for 30 years -- a $210 million total -- to pay off bonds. The team would provide $120 million in cash and land. St. Louis city and county taxpayers would contribute a combined $221 million for debt repayment.

Kinder narrowly steered the bill through the Senate earlier this month with one vote to spare. Senators added numerous provisions to ensure the team kept its promises and would share its profits in the event of a sale.

But once the measure went to the House, it lost momentum. House Speaker Jim Kreider, D-Nixa, held on to it as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Senate over education funding and steps to balance the state budget.

Kinder said Kreider, who is running for the Senate, had pledged his support for the bill during campaign fund-raising events in St. Louis and Kansas City but broke those promises.

"He said he understood the importance of the bill and would do everything he could to help us," Kinder said. "In fact, he did everything he could to thwart us. He talked against the issue all over the state. It was certainly his right, but not a consistent performance."

Kreider said the accusations aren't true, but if Kinder wants to make them, that's fine by him.

"If he wants to elect me to the Senate, it's the best thing he could say about me in southwest Missouri," Kreider said.

Kreider said he kept his word that stadiums would be the No. 4 priority behind education, protecting the elderly and transportation. If the Senate had moved more quickly on those issues, Kreider said, "we would have had four or five days to debate stadiums."

With time running out, there seemed to be little point of bringing the bill up for House debate once Kreider's priorities were finished on the session's last day. Even supporters predicted the measure would fall short by at least 20 votes.

Though key Democrats like Gov. Bob Holden and U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt had earlier endorsed the bill, Kinder said they were noticeably absent when the measure stalled. Kinder said the significant political clout of those men could have turned the tide.

Calling a bluff

Though the Cardinals are looking at other options outside the city, ballpark opponents continue to think it's a bluff.

Moves to St. Louis or St. Charles counties are among the alternatives. However, whether local governments could come up with more than $400 million public-funding component on their own is questionable. Of course, the team may be willing to contribute more for another site, or scale back the project.

Heading to Illinois remains the most discussed and most feared option. But like Missouri, Illinois is experiencing budget problems and may not have the financial wherewithal to swing a deal. Plus, an Illinois plan could require adding numerous other projects to win support from Chicago lawmakers and those from other parts of the state.

In the Missouri case, giving lawmakers from the most populous areas of the state something to vote for was key to the bill making it as far as it did.

While state support for convention centers in Springfield and Branson may yet move forward, the Cardinals' promise that they won't return to Jefferson City probably dooms the efforts for stadium renovations in Kansas City.

The bill called for a state subsidy of $294 million over 30 years to improve Kaufmann Stadium, home to baseball's Royals, and Arrowhead Stadium, where football's Chiefs play.

"You saw how difficult it was to do this when you had the two sides of the state semi-united," Kinder said. "The support is simply not there to do this with one of those projects standing alone."

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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