Messenger: Scottrade lawsuit an opportunity for St. Louis to hit reset button

Not long after the St. Louis Blues were knocked out of the playoffs in May, St. Louis Alderman Cara Spencer made a legal threat about the city’s plans to remodel the downtown home of the professional hockey club.

The Missouri Constitution doesn’t allow the city to simply hand millions of dollars over to a private, for-profit entity, Spencer wrote in a letter to Comptroller Darlene Green. At the time, Green still hadn’t issued the bonds to finance the $138 million renovation project of the Scottrade Center that had been approved by the Board of Aldermen.

The work has begun, but the bonds still haven’t been sold.

And on Friday, Spencer made good on her threat.

The 20th Ward alderman is one of three plaintiffs on a lawsuit filed in St. Louis Circuit Court seeking to declare the ordinance that approves the money for the Scottrade renovation as unenforceable. The lawsuit was filed by attorneys Erich Vieth and John Ammann. Vieth represents Spencer and James Wilson, who is a former city attorney. Ammann, a St. Louis University law professor, represents former state representative Jeannette Oxford.

At issue is whether the city of St. Louis is investing in a public building it owns, as the city and the Blues contend, or whether it is giving taxpayers’ money to the owners of the Blues, who completely control operations at Scottrade.

“What the Ordinance requires,” the lawsuit contends, “is not an investment or even a loan. The Ordinance requires the City to give an immense gift of money to Hockey Ownership. The Ordinance requires the City to hand over $105.9 million dollars to Hockey Ownership over a period of 30 years.”

The lawsuit brings to a boil a couple of simmering debates that have been roiling in St. Louis for months, if not years.

How can a city that struggles to pay its bills and provide basic services — such as public safety — continue to invest in professional sports stadiums and arenas, particularly when the wealthy owners of such teams appear to be the primary beneficiaries?

And why should the city’s residents, many of them living in poverty, continue to shoulder the burden of investing in downtown amenities that are used by St. Louis County residents and folks from all around the region?

These are the issues that doomed the proposed downtown Major League Soccer stadium, which failed in a public vote in April. They are the issues that caused Spencer and several other aldermen to vote against the Scottrade proposal, which actually is much more damaging to the city’s general revenue budget than was the soccer proposal.

Now, a judge will weigh in and potentially force a more regional discussion about St. Louis priorities.

That’s what Vieth hopes happens.

“The lawsuit itself is a statement that this was not done right,” Vieth said in an interview. “You can’t just hand money to a private organization.”

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In that regard, Spencer has a suggestion.

What St. Louis needs, she says, is a regional sports authority, a body that can fund the sports amenities in the St. Louis region from both city and county taxpayers, and possibly even do a better job of luring new teams, such as MLS or even an NBA basketball team to play in Scottrade.

“We need a reset here,” Spencer said. “We need a regional solution to fund these amenities. It starts with regional financing and more public oversight.”

Ever since the failed plan to bring MLS to town — supported by many of the same entities that pushed for the Scottrade renovations — there have been murmurings of a “Plan B” to finance soccer. For Spencer and Vieth, the Plan B for both MLS and Scottrade — should the lawsuit succeed — is the same one.

It’s time for a regional sports authority in St. Louis.

“There have to be other, more creative ways to do these sort of deals,” Vieth said. “Because this isn’t it. The ordinance is clearly unconstitutional. There are ways to do this right.”

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Source : http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/columns/tony-messenger/messenger-scottrade-lawsuit-an-opportunity-for-st-louis-to-hit/article_885f46f3-b194-5fb5-8d1d-bcf7835bec7c.html

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