Coming off the loss of the Rams, St. Louis’ leaders have come up with a can’t fail strategy for boosting the city and its fortunes: Spend hundreds of millions to improve the convention center and domed stadium complex abandoned by the Rams to better compete in the national convention market. Kitty Ratcliffe, head of the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, owner of the center and dome, recently proclaimed, “Our competitors are building, while we’ve been doing nothing.” The chief of staff for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay weighed in with “We’re looking at this as a boost for the region’s tourism industry.” And they promised a consultant study “in the next few weeks” that would document the needs and set out a price tag.
Here they go again. Thirty years ago, faced with the loss of the NFL Cardinals, then-Mayor Vince Schoemehl and the region’s business leaders promoted a combined convention center expansion and domed stadium as the cure for the city’s ills. The argument by mayoral staffers was that “the City cannot feel like a ‘winner’ if it’s constantly losing things.” The city’s then budget director argued that a combined dome/convention center would be “an exciting world-class building project. We don’t often get this type of opportunity to make an international impact, like the Astrodome.”
Armed with consultant studies that promised a big boost in convention activity from what was supposed to be the country’s fourth biggest convention center, the city, county and state governments plopped down $240 million for a dome that still didn’t have a football tenant. More consultant studies said that what St. Louis really needed was a 1,000-room hotel next door to the new America’s Center complex. The head of the Convention and Visitors Commission in 1999 forecast that a new hotel would boost major conventions from 33 in 1998 to 56 in 2004, with hotel room nights almost doubling, to 800,000 a year. Mayor Clarence Harmon pressed the case for state aid for the hotel as “the foundation of our efforts to revitalize downtown and its is a cornerstone of our overall economic development strategy in the City of St. Louis.”
The new $277 million, 1,081-room Renaissance Grand Hotel opened in 2003 and immediately floundered, with occupancy and rates well below consultant forecasts. Beyond the problem of opening in the wake of 9/11, the hotel never spurred the predicted convention boom. By 2006, there weren’t 54 major conventions, but just 32. And the total continued to sink, so that 2008 saw just 438,000 convention room nights, a bit less than the 800,000 promised. With no new convention business, the hotel proved a total dud, and bondholders foreclosed on it in 2009, finally selling it for a third of debt. The story of the city’s convention business is still the same — 26 major conventions in 2014 and 425,411 room nights in 2014, almost exactly the same as the figures for 1997 and 1998.
Now, lest the city once again be viewed as a “loser,” with more promises of a “boost” for tourism, state and local officials seem poised to throw away more public money.