St. Louis convention center expansion finally begins despite pandemic, politics and cost overruns | Politics

AC Next Gen groundbreaking ceremony

Regional leaders gathered Tuesday, May 17, 2022, to celebrate the groundbreaking of the America’s Center expansion project known as AC Next Gen. The group gathered on the now-green area at the corner of 9th and Cole streets which used to be the C-9 parking garage. Photo by Hillary Levin,

ST. LOUIS — The $210 million plan to expand the downtown convention center has weathered turnover in City Hall and Clayton, a global pandemic, political feuds, a last-minute opposition campaign and, most recently, soaring construction costs.

But the publicly funded project, more than four years in the making, on Tuesday finally made it to its ceremonial groundbreaking, drawing smiling politicians and business leaders to a bare patch of dirt at Ninth and Cole streets where a new wing will add exhibit space and loading docks to the America’s Center complex.

“What do regionalism and collaboration look like?” St. Louis County Executive Sam Page asked the gathering Tuesday. “America’s Center is a good example.”

St. Louis County agreed to fund half of the project in early 2019, just before Page became county executive. But the St. Louis County Council only last month signed off on the bond financing after stalling it since September. The holdup was due to Council Chair Rita Heard Days’ insistence that a plan for a north St. Louis County recreation center, offered in a 2019 deal for the county’s support, be included. The county added $40 million to its $105 million bond issuance to fund the recreation complex.

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The project is supposed to be financed over the next 40 years with about $6 million each in hotel taxes from the city and county freed up with the retirement of the debt used to build the Dome at America’s Center, where the NFL’s Rams used to play. St. Louis issued its bonds 18 months ago after weathering its own political disputes, including a push by Comptroller Darlene Green’s office to win control of the bond financing.

America's Center expansion

A new park and public plaza between 9th and 10th streets contemplated as part of the second phase of the expansion of America’s Center (rendering via the Convention and Visitors Commission, Fentress Architects).

Strong support from politically influential hotel operators and the unions representing the construction and event industry helped the project overcome its years of political hurdles. And St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones remained a steadfast supporter after inheriting the project from Mayor Lyda Krewson’s administration. Jones told attendees the project would help add vibrancy to downtown and draw more visitors by better competing for conventions.

“If St. Louis is the Gateway to the West, then America’s Center is our city’s front door,” Jones said.

Kitty Ratcliffe, who as head of the region’s tourism arm has shepherded the project through the administrations of two mayors and two county executives while navigating a pandemic that shut down conventions and hammered the hotels whose taxes fund her agency, thanked hospitality leaders for their “patience.” Uncertainty over whether the expansion would be ready in time for conventions that booked the facility late next year has affected hotel operators and other businesses that rely on those events, she said.

“Today, we take away some of that uncertainty,” Ratcliffe said.

Only Tony Thompson, CEO of project manager Kwame Building Group, addressed the “elephant in the room”: The soaring cost of construction and lack of bidders on the project. Ben-Hur Construction was the sole bidder on the project’s first phase, winning the contract despite a bid that was $40 million above the initial $83 million estimate.

“The economic impact to the city would be much worse if we did not move forward with a project like this,” Thompson said.

America's Center on Cole Street

A rendering of the redesigned loading docks along Cole Street that are part of the expansion of the America’s Center downtown convention complex (Rendering via the Convention and Visitors Commission, Fentress Architects).

While Ben-Hur was given a notice to proceed, negotiations have just begun to convince the company to shave off $8 million in project costs, which project backers said they would pursue. Meanwhile, no companies bid for the project’s second half, which is supposed to add a ballroom and public plaza along Ninth Street.

Deputy Comptroller LaTaunia Kenner, who has managed the coordination team of city and county officials for Green, who was not in attendance, said she didn’t know when the second half of the project would go out to bid.

“We will go from our base contract and work to minimize any cost overruns through contract auditing,” Kenner said, adding that Kwame “does a fantastic job” and would “minimize any cost overruns.”

Asked if the city might need to issue more bonds to cover the soaring costs, Kenner said, “I really don’t have any information on that question at this time.”

Ratcliffe said “it’s really out of my control” whether the project can stay within the $210 million budget.

“We have enough to get this project going,” she said. “We have to work with Ben-Hur Construction now. I’m trying to figure out what those actual costs for materials are going to be and what we can reduce this part of the budget by in order to figure out what we have remaining for the next piece.”

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