St. Louis looks to hotel taxes for convention center expansion

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CHICAGO — St. Louis is proposing $175 million of bond-financed convention center upgrades to bolster the city’s ability to compete with other major cities for business.

The plan to upgrade the America’s Center Convention Complex comes from St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission President Kitty Ratcliffe with the support of Mayor Lyda Krewson, County Executive Steve Stenger, and city Comptroller Darlene Green.

“The America’s Center plays a critical role as an economic driver for the entire region. The complex is truly a window for the hundreds of thousands of event attendees who visit us and are hopefully inspired to return here for future leisure or business event purposes,” Ratcliffe said in a statement.

The plan from the commission, which operates the convention center complex, calls for issuing 40-year bonds that would repaid with city and county revenue collected from a 3.5% hotel tax. That revenue currently goes to repay bonds issued to finance construction of the former Edward Jones Dome stadium.

That venue — now called the Dome at America's Center — is part of the convention complex and was home to the National Football League’s Rams before the team moved to Los Angeles in 2016. When the team fled, about $144 million was still owed on the bonds which are fully retired in 2021. Additional details on how the convention center deal would be structured to accommodate the existing debt and the potential timing and actual size were not disclosed.

The dome was financed with proceeds of a $256 million issue of 30-year appropriation backed bonds in 1991 by the St. Louis Regional Convention & Sport Complex Authority. The bonds are repaid under a complex agreement between the city, county, state, and commission with payments subject to an annual appropriation. The state pays $12 million and the county and city each pay $6 million.

The plan has the support of Green, who has not been shy in opposing city investments she believes pose a threat to the city’s balance sheet or ratings.

“The joint investment in America’s Center by St. Louis City and County means our region will continue being competitive in drawing national conventions,” Green said. “That’s more visitors coming to St. Louis, spending their money in our community.”

The financing plan has not yet been submitted to the city or county councils, which must approve it.

The expansion would create 92,000 square feet of exhibit space, a 65,000 square feet ballroom and meeting area and 22,000 square feet of support space. The existing 12 loading docks would be renovated and an additional 26 built as well as an outdoor pavilion. The convention center dates back to 1977.

The expansion is being billed as a means to stave off a further decline in event bookings and generate 36% growth.

The complex hosts about 100 events annually, with more than 600,000 attendees that use 300,000 hotel rooms and generate $265 million of direct economic spending that supports 3,300 jobs, according to a report from Johnson Consulting cited by the commission.

The commission warns the expansion is needed to keep pace with investments being made by competing cities. Indianapolis has undertaken $275 million in upgrades, Nashville spent $623 million, Columbus $125 million, Louisville $207 million, Lexington $230 million, and San Antonio has spent $325 million.

Those investment have made “it more difficult for St. Louis and the America’s Center to remain a world-class destination for these clients and their attendees,” the statement said.

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