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Funding deal one Cardinals can live with, Lamping says

A proposed agreement the St. Louis Cardinals have with St. Louis County to help fund a new ball park to replace Busch Stadium is not the deal the team hoped to negotiate, according to Cardinals President Mark Lamping.

"But it's certainly a deal that at the end of the day we can live with and is certainly a deal that is much better for the taxpayers of the state and of the county and of the city than what was first proposed," Lamping told the County Council last week during a public hearing where regional officials and members of the public discussed the proposal.

Legislation that was introduced Nov. 18 and sponsored by all six councilmen would appropriate up to $48 million in taxable bonds from county hotel/motel tax revenue. County councilmen have referred to this appropriation as a loan that would help promote tourism and recreational activity in the city and county.

Councilmen gave their preliminary approval of the ball park bill Nov. 25 and the legislation was scheduled for final consideration Tuesday — after the Call went to press. If approved, funds from the county would help pay for parts of the ballpark's design, construction and financing.

Lamping told councilmen that construction for one of the largest development projects in the region's history — totaling $600 million — should begin by the end of 2003 and county residents will benefit on opening day in 2006.

With a third of the fans who go to Cardinals games living in the county, Lamping said the county is the home to the largest segment of fans. He also noted that nearly half of all of Busch Stadium's current employees reside in the county.

Lamping presented some of the financial details of the proposal to councilmen, explaining that the Cardinals are requesting the use of some of the visitor-generated excess hotel/motel tax money to provide debt service to support the issuance of $45 million in taxable bonds by the Missouri Development Finance Board.

He told councilmen the Missouri Development Finance Board then would make a loan to the city's Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority to provide for an interest-bearing loan to the private investors who are building the ballpark and then lease it to the Cardinals.

The loan would accrue over an actual term of 43 years, which includes construction years, he said noting the loan would accrue at a rate sufficient to reimburse the county for debt service on the bonds. The agreement stipulates that all principal interest would be payable in a lump sum at maturity, but may be prepaid with penalties any time during the loan period. The principal interest to the county for the $45 million loan will total more than a $148 million in cash at maturity or there will be a transfer of the entire ballpark and the ground lease in the satisfaction of that loan.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said the current proposal is an example of what can happen when the city and the county work together for the betterment of this region.

Noting that the money the county would appropriate must be used for tourism purposes, Slay said a strong downtown is essential for the success of a region — a region that currently is experiencing a renaissance of development.

"This will take the momentum that we are building in downtown St. Louis to the next level ..." Slay said. "... This project is better than it was a couple years ago and it's better because St. Louis County Council made it better. You improved it and I want to thank you for that."

He told councilmen that 40 percent of the 3 million people who attend Cardinals games travel from out of state, bringing the region a multitude of people who shop in area stores, eat in local restaurants, visit other nearby attractions and sleep in regional hotels.

"When we first approached Buzz Westfall on this issue, he didn't flinch," Slay said. "He understood that the city's and the county's futures are tied together. I want you to know that I also understand the importance of regionalism ... not just what the county can do for St. Louis city, but what we can do to continue to work together to strengthen this entire region. We at the city understand how important a healthy county is to this entire region ..."

But members of the public also spoke who wished the county had not negotiated any type of agreement with the Cardinals, contending a sports complex is not a worthy investment and the county should not use public funds to help private investors.

"To allot what amounts to the rest of your tourism tax money for just about our lifetimes to another narrow seasonal sports endeavor downtown would be removing your options, good councilmen, your options to fund other worthy tourism growth projects in your districts," said Ed Golterman of Kirkwood.

A spokesman for the Coalition Against Public Funding for Stadiums, Fred Lindecke, also voiced his opposition for the public funding of a stadium at the Nov. 24 hearing.

The coalition is circulating a petition to place the proposal on the ballot and let voters decide if the county should use public funds for the sports complex.

"We know from our signature collecting thus far that an overwhelming majority of the county is opposed to seeing their tax money wasted at a time when the council is cutting county services and losing revenue to municipal incorporation," Lindecke said. "Yet the councilmen insist on proceeding with issuing $48 million in bonds to make rich men richer."

He said the councilmen also insist on forcing county taxpayers to pay $110 million to retire the bonds in payments lasting until 2034.

Coalition member Tom Sullivan also urged councilmen to reject the funding for a new baseball stadium downtown claiming that county residents do not support it.

"It's easy to understand why so many are against public funds being spent to build stadiums," Sullivan said. "It is not the purpose of government to support private businesses or enrich their owners — especially when so many public needs are going unmet."

The Cardinals owners have a combined net worth that exceeds $4 billion and are "hardly in need of public assistance,'' Sullivan said.

"The bottom line is that the County Council will be approving a $148 million handout of tax money to the millionaire owners of the St. Louis Cardinals. There is little chance it will ever be repaid,'' he contended.

But other members of the public offered their support for the legislation.

Sandra Diamond, who described herself as a loyal season ticket holder of the Cardinals for almost 20 years, asked councilmen for the county's support of the ballpark project, citing successful revitalization efforts in Denver with its new Coors Field and a new downtown ballpark in Phoenix.

"We're in the top of the ninth now and we've got our best relief pitchers in the game, our bullpen by committee — the honorable members of the St. Louis County Council," she said. "The ball game rests in each of your hands. The outcome determines what happens to the financial future of our region ... In voting yes for the stadium proposal, you will be voting for the good of our team, the St. Louis region."

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