St. Louis can use city tax dollars to build a new NFL stadium for the Rams without a public vote on the matter, Circuit Court Judge Thomas Frawley ruled on Monday. Critics say the decision calls into question the city’s spending priorities one year after the killing of an unarmed black teenager ignited long-simmering racial tensions and exposed extreme poverty, corruption, and racial bias throughout the county.
A 2002 ordinance requires a city vote before spending public money on a new sports facility. Frawley declared the ordinance invalid, saying portions were “too vague to be enforced.”
The most recent financing plan puts the final price tag for the new stadium at $998 million, with $201 million of that coming from state and city bonds and $187 million in tax credits and other state or city incentives. The rest would come from the NFL’s loan program, the team owner, and personal seat licenses.
Antonio French, a city alderman representing the 21st Ward, denounced the decision and the fact that city and state leaders would choose to prioritize stadium development over several other glaring problems in need of investment.
“When you look at the city of St. Louis and our needs, especially post-Ferguson and the world seeing the issues here in the St. Louis region, for anyone to suggest that the billion dollar investment we need to make is in a football stadium is crazy,” French told ThinkProgress.
For anyone to suggest that the billion dollar investment we need to make is in a football stadium is crazy.
This week marks one year since Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer while walking down the street in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. The incident sparked protests and a scathing Department of Justice investigation, all of which exposed many of the disparities in Ferguson and the surrounding municipalities that had escaped the national spotlight.
“Those of us who represent neighborhoods who have been struggling for many years, we know that people here have long felt abandoned and the issues that really mean life or death to them aren’t given the same attention by city leaders and state government,” French said, listing among those issues the fact that the region has some of the highest homicide rates in the nation and an education system in desperate need of funding.
But the everyday challenges those residents face have taken a back seat to “well-connected millionaires who get task forces assigned by the governor to fix their problems,” French said. Nixon created the stadium task force last year in an attempt to keep the Rams in St. Louis. The Ram’s owner, Stan Kroenke, has threatened to move the team back to Los Angeles if a new stadium isn’t constructed. His plan to build a nearly $2 billion stadium in Inglewood, California was hurriedly approved by the city council in February without a public vote. The Raiders and Chargers have also employed the threat of relocating to L.A., making it an effective bargaining chip for the NFL to push cities like St. Louis to offer up taxpayer dollars for new stadiums.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) said in an emailed statement that Monday’s ruling “clears the way for the stadium task force to continue making solid progress under the aggressive timeframes set by the NFL” and Bob Peacock, co-leader of the stadium task force and former Anheuser-Busch president, called on residents “to rally on behalf of something that will make a difference in our economy, national profile and quality of life for generations to come.”
Other officials weren’t as enthusiastic about Frawley’s decision. St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay supports stadium development but has defended the public’s right to vote on the process. His chief of staff called Monday’s ruling “very disappointing.”
French said he and his colleagues would be assessing their options in the coming days and other opponents indicated they would keep fighting the prospect of taxpayer dollars being allocated for the stadium without a public vote. John Ammann, a St. Louis University law professor, filed a motion to allow three city residents to intervene in the case, which Frawley also denied on Monday. Ammann said his clients would appeal the decision and called on the mayor, in keeping with his promise to defend the city ordinance requiring a public vote, to do the same.
“We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, and the Normandy School District is still unaccredited,” Ammann told St. Louis Public Radio. “But what the leaders of the stadium authority and the city are talking about is a new stadium. You can decide any priorities you want, but let’s at least have a public discussion about what the priorities of the community are.”