Time to Enlist the Blues in Renovation of the Armory

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STL Blues Armory 2

The St. Louis Blues are a great hockey franchise. They win. OK, they haven’t won that, but they’re successful year-after-year. In St. Louis we love the Blues. We support the Blues.

The Blues ownership group very clearly takes great pride in being in St. Louis. They’re not going anywhere. Tom Stillman isn’t Stan Kroenke. And everything we hear is that the Blues are a great community partner, often reaching out to support individuals and promote St. Louis, and often without any expectation of positive press.

All that said, let’s have a conversation about the Blues, Scottrade Center, $160M, and the impact on St. Louis. In return for supporting a ~$160M renovation of the Blue’s home arena, the team should relocate its practice facility and planned hockey center to the city.

First, a timeline of recent events. Toward the end of the effort to retain the NFL St. Louis Rams, the future of Scottrade Center was addressed. The guess was that a renovation in excess of $100M would be sought soon. Since then, the Blues have made headlines on and off the ice:

  • April: Missouri state lawmakers moved to bar any state funds from being spent on Scottrade renovations
  • May 23: Blues announced a $35M practice facility and hockey complex in Maryland Heights
  • May 24: St. Louis City’s Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority (LCRA) approves measure declaring intent to finance Scottrade renovations with $160M bond issue
  • May 25: Blues seasons ends in Conference Finals with 5-2 loss to San Jose Sharks
  • May 27: Preliminary plans place Scottrade renovation cost at $160M
  • June 2: Stadium Journey names Scottrade the 3rd best fan experience in the NHL

The state was riled up about Governor Nixon’s support of a possible new NFL stadium with state money, perhaps after a cooling off period there’s funding there for the Blues. The Maryland Heights project “public-private partnership” appears to have caught the public off-guard, with numerous officials declining to comment. The May 25 LCRA resolution lays the groundwork for financing Scottrade renovations.

I’m skeptical of the economic value to cities of professional sports franchises. It’s a rather mainstream skepticism. Still, I think it could make sense for the city to support Scottrade renovations (the arena hosts more than just the Blues, of course). We should support the Blues. We should also get something in return.

It may be easy for someone who visits downtown St. Louis only, or primarily, for sporting events, to see the city’s heart as one-dimensional. “If it weren’t for Blues games, I’d never go downtown!” Well the truth is, if someone only comes downtown for a game, that’s not much of a benefit to downtown. Despite what seems like a busy setting, the crush of 20-30-40 thousand fans rushing in and out in a few hours isn’t great for businesses or economic development.

Anyway, the city should get something in return for supporting Scottrade renovations, and with news that Green Street is exploring options to redevelop the Armory building, here’s the idea:

STL Blues_Armory1

The St. Louis Blues at The Armory
The imposing and prominent Armory building abutting I-64/40 near Grand Boulevard and just two miles west of Scottrade, was completed in 1937. As the name would imply, it served as the home of the 138th Infantry, calling the building home until at least the late 1950s. The Armory built, like well, a tank. In fact, tanks were stored in the underground parking area (perfect for today’s hockey players and team executives). The building remained in use, hosting The Grateful Dead in 1968, and providing a young Arthur Ashe a place to play tennis (read more on the history of the Armory here).

Armory aerial map

But does the facility work? In short, yes. It’s feasible. In fact, images of the interior reveal a main area that appears perfect for an ice rink. There’s seating, a press box and suite area, and more. The building already has the aforementioned underground parking, and there’s space for locker rooms, training facilities, and more. And the larger building to the east is now owned by Green Street. It could also house rinks, or replaced with a new multi-purpose facility.

One goal stated by the St. Louis Blues of its Maryland Heights plan is to spread to the sport of hockey, to engage youth in the sport. While Maryland Heights may be nearer the white middle class and existing hockey fans, a facility in the city, and adjacent to a MetroLink station and busy bus route, would do more to grow the game. An ice rink facility here would be accessible to more people, of more economic and racial diversity.

Restore a landmark building, gain a high-profile location, connect with a more diverse fan base, honor the military history, and the practice courts of Arthur Ashe, there’s a lot to recommend the Armory. It’s near the Lawrence Group’s Cortex East proposed development, not far from the planned $500M Saint Louis University hospital project, and just south of that school’s main campus.

The Armory would provide a much better experience for traveling teams and tournament attendees. The city offers assets that can be sparse in Maryland Heights and other suburban locations, including hotels and restaurants, and family attractions such as Union Station, City Museum, the Arch, Ikea, and everything in Forest Park.

The city serves as host to an unprofitable professional hockey team. There are some positive intangibles that go with that, though they would not be much diminished for the region if the Blues played games at its current practice facility location at an outlet mall. More than one pro team plays outside its namesake city, and no one really cares.

The impact of a facility used almost daily, for tournaments, for practice, for public skating, would be greater than that of the Blues at Scottrade itself. The city would see a greater benefit from being home to the practice facility and ice rinks, than the NHL’s 41 home games.

For the Blues, either location would present a high-profile statement of its belief in the community. For the city, either option would help justify its financial support of Scottrade renovations. The city would be wise to ask for something in return for its investment, its representatives and residents would be wise to push the city to do so.

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  • jhoff1257

    Maybe it’s time to push this back out in front of officials and the Blues. With the increasing likelihood of the Creve Coeur rinks falling through maybe we push the Blues to open up a large practice facility here. I understand a developer has the building under contract with plans to renovate but I really think this would make an AWESOME practice facility for the St. Louis Blues. With the size of the building and nearby land you could even do a mixed use development with the Blues as the lead tenant. It’s also close to Scottrade (can we go back to Kiel Center since Scottrade is leaving town?) and there is room nearby for other rinks should they require them.

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  • Eric

    “if someone only comes downtown for a game, that’s not much of a benefit to downtown. Despite what seems like a busy setting, the crush of 20-30-40 thousand fans rushing in and out in a few hours isn’t great for businesses or economic development.”

    Someone who only comes downtown for a game is no different than someone who only comes downtown for work. The Cardinals attract about 3.5 million attendees per year, on average that’s the equivalent of about 14,000 workers who come every weekday. That would be about tied with Boeing and SSMHC for the second largest employer in the STL area. And what’s better, the hours these people come are different from work hours, so all these people do not clog the roads in rush hour.

    • Alex Ihnen

      That isn’t even close to being true.

    • John R

      This is an intriguing comment… as Alex says, this is not how things work; makes no difference numbers-wise for someone say from Des Peres going downtown for a dozen sports events a year or to Richmond Heights to the Galleria a dozen times. Certainly individuals who work in either are contributing more than those who only visit.

      On the other hand, collectively, a Blues or Cardinals season does have a significant economic benefit to downtown and one that would be the equivalent of some number of average paid office workers. I’m sure what that number precisely is requires a very complicated analysis as there are so many factors involved, but I’d think it is less than 14,000 for Cardinals.

  • Andrew Wind

    I was just back in St. Louis for about a week and couldn’t believe how inadequate the gyms and athletic facilities are. All of my friends who I spoke to about this said they wished someone like Equinox would open up something good, so there’s a real market there. In New York we have the Chelsea Piers, which has an indoor pool, track, rock wall, cafe, spa facility, endless weights, volleyball and basketball courts, etc. etc. etc. making it one of the best gyms in the entire country. The Armory has even more available space than Pier 60 and is even more centrally located — i.e. it’s not built on the edge of town over a river. The city of STL should try to court proposals from developers who could convert the armory into a similar facility. It would generate activity 16 hours a day in an area that’s otherwise a wasteland and provide a much-needed service (to say nothing of jobs) for people across the city.

  • stlchiefs

    I love the idea, it would be interesting to see the cost breakout vs the new build in Maryland Heights that has been discussed. That being said, if the Blues would place their facility outside of West County that would probably put the Chesterfield Valley multi-rink project back into play. From my understanding, as of now, the guys in Chesterfield have backed off their project until they have a better feel for what the Blues are doing in MH as they don’t believe there’s a need for both their project in Chesterfield and the Blues in MH. Now if you spread those projects out a bit (Chesterfield and the City), I think you have a better chance of them both being viable still.

  • tony

    I am all for old barns like this.

    http://bit.ly/29mbpEw

    http://bit.ly/298TUKm

  • Katy Thomas

    My kids don’t play, but I know plenty of STL city mom’s that would love to not have to drive to Webster or Chesterfield multiple times a week for boys hockey and girls figure skating…

    • citylover

      You’re right. Though youth sports practices and tournaments seem like a small thing it has a huge benefit of being centrally located. I used to play for a volleyball team in West County and we always had trouble catering to players in Illinois, far south county, and city residents. Parents didn’t want to drive far for practices etc. would’ve made us more competitive in the city

  • Ice_Burned

    Love the idea of renovating the Armory for public use of some kind, but I think it’s unlikely the Blues would get involved beyond lending some good will support. They’re good neighbors but It’s a lot to ask. Couldn’t renovation costs for this building run up into the $100 million dollar range also? The operating cost is bound to be much higher than what the blues currently pay in a low rent suburban rink.

    Also, didn’t the Rams used to have their headquarters in MH to avoid paying the city income tax on all but game day? Are the Blues doing the same thing and would they really fork over all the extra income tax?

    Between Scottrade and Chaifetz (received 8 mil in TIF), can’t we already host youth hockey tournaments in the city with all of the nearby perks? Are those facilities really so booked that this is not possible? There really aren’t that many arena concerts annually. It probably takes suburban parents to organize those things though.

    Could the Armory be made part of Forest Park? How about an top notch aquatics center with an Olympic pool, diving, and a kiddie pool? I think the city lacks swimming on a hot day more than a place to ice skate in the winter. Sounds like the underground parking might complicate this idea admittedly.

    • John Smith

      While Chaifetz sometimes has disney on ice, it can not support a full rink for the purpose of playing hockey.

  • Ryan

    If there’s space limitations, what about a slimmer curling space instead of another whole rink? I’d think the Blues players would even like that.

  • Tim E

    Hey Alex, do I get a byline for suggesting the idea in a reply to Don on your Green Streets Amory blog post 4 days ago….. Kidding aside, I think this a great post and believe this idea been around awhile. Wonder if it is gaining traction or if you are hearing a lot more comments on it outside of blog world??

    I don’t even think you need the Blues need to have their practice ice here but having them being involved or blessing would be nice. I think the Blues will stick with County just to keep coverage of the area for fans sake and youth hockey, Maryland heights offers a great location for a big part of their fan base as well as a lot of youth hockey.

    But getting indoor ice for city residents, youth and SLU and or maybe Wash U would be worth it.

    • rgbose

      Writing a letter to the editor to the PD would help spread the word

    • Alex Ihnen

      Great minds… The idea has been floating around for a while, as has a draft post. Some time things just come together. The Armory isn’t the only place for a Blues training facility in the city. We may share another idea soon!

  • I juts want the Blues to fund/support an open-air ice rink under the Union Station trainshed (proof of concept below) each year. It seems LHM is intent on transforming the area into a public place of amusement — this would be the missing cold weather piece to make it a year-round attraction! And with the Winter Classic down the street on January 2, 2017, this year is a great time to try it out!

    • Tim E

      Agree, another great spot for some city ice. I just don’t see Blues going open air ice for practice though. Youth hockey, can’t see why not or even a few weekend games/tournaments.

      However, I think it is a good idea but not sure if rink at Forest Park would take a hit on use and funding down the road unless you had some buy in from youth hockey to take time and cost @ Union Station rink or even Armory for that matter. Either way, to build youth hockey leagues in the city as well as county you need some more ice for both. Hockey is one of the more expensive youth sports out there. Far more expensive then my boys little league and or basketball league this past year.

      • Oh no, not for a practice facility! Just as an open-to-the-public ice rink under the historic Union Station train shed.

        The added activity before/after Blues games should make it a no-brainer — get a skate in with your friends (or your family), listen to some live music and head on into the game. Or celebrate a Blues home win with some post-game skating or some drinks at an adjacent outdoor (with heaters, of course) bar/cafe. Perfect.

        • Tim E

          Crowd might be a rough on the after game skate depending on how many brews went down during the game. I can picture a bunch of drunk blues fans deciding on a post pickup game themselves. Certainly wouldn’t go on the ice if I was out of town fan
          ..
          Personally, I’m a bad enough skater as it is so would only have to be pre game skate and they would probably think I was a bit tispy already & pull me off the ice.

  • Chicagoan

    This is a nice idea, which is why it won’t happen. Sport teams often times don’t want to put in the effort. Perhaps my pessimism is just too high.

  • stlnative

    Literally just had this conversation with my girlfriend (works for the Blues) last Friday. She passed my comments on to her coworker who helps with facility management and event organization for the Blues and Scottrade. He thought it was a good idea and hopefully passed it along to his superiors. Only thing is that the Blues already have a set of plans that are relatively far along in the design and development stage. While the location makes sense and would be a great opportunity for the city, maybe a possible joint venture with SLU, and the FedMo project going on adjacent, you have to consider what the costs would be involved in retrofitting an older building or just building new. I at least hope the Blues organization would look into this with Green Street and see if it would be viable.

    • Oooh,..good call! SLU should definitely have a college hockey team. A venue the size of the Armory would more than support its needs, attendance-wise.

      Alternatively, I’d be entirely fine with the Blues building a brand-new practice facility somewhere in the City-proper and renting it to SLU for a new men’s/women’s home hockey games and practice.

  • Deadhead616

    The Kingsbridge National Ice Center, which includes former NY Ranger Mark Messier, is proposing a similar redevelopment of the vacant Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx, NY. The project would create a 5,000-seat stadium, eight ice rinks and a community center. Currently trying to finalize financing. https://youtu.be/_rEvj8tyhis

    • Chicagoan

      This has been my favorite building in New York for a very long time, it’s gorgeous!

  • Don

    If the Armory is going to be saved, any new use must be financially viable. It makes economic sense to use grants, tax credits, etc. to subsidize renovations of desirable old buildings to modernize them and repurpose them. But once the modernization is complete, the building must be able to compete in the marketplace. I’m very skeptical that there is a market for an event space of that size that can be financially viable. The cost of heating and cooling alone would be astronomical.

    A new state of the art Blues practice facility is the best idea I’ve ever heard for this structure. Assuming it would be a financially viable propositon, lets hope we have the leadership to get it done.

  • Michael B

    I love the idea but have many concerns. Can the Blues really fit in the Armory? The seating isn’t plentiful. The main entrance is overshadowed by a hideous and noisy highway to the north, and the rear of the building backs up to a large electrical station that I doubt can be moved.

    That being said, I’d love to see a historical building be reused like that, and think that a tear-down of the building to the east and some Blues landscaping could completely transform the Grand metrolink stop into a less-creepy, more open station.

    • Alex Ihnen

      For a practice facility it’s more than large enough. Having 1,000-1,500 seats is great for tournaments, etc. (existing seats + more that could easily be added). It’s clearly just an idea, but I’d love to see a new building replace the warehouse to the east – this could include parking and another rink or two.

    • Alex Ihnen

      For a practice facility it’s more than large enough. Having 1,000-1,500 seats is great for tournaments, etc. (existing seats + more temporary seats could easily be added). It’s clearly just an idea, but I’d love to see a new building replace the warehouse to the east – this could include parking and another rink or two.

      For what it’s worth, here’s another image of inside the Armory, the Blues current practice facility, and the Harbor Center rink (Buffalo Sabres):

      • Michael B

        Thank you. Those pictures help a lot. I can see how it would work on the inside now, and I like your idea of another building/parking to the east. Coupled with a redesigned Spring Ave viaduct/pedestrian bridge leading over from the new development to the north of the highway, this has the elements necessary to be a success.

    • Tom Michaels

      There is plenty of room for a full size rink. 200×85. The main entrance could be moved to the east side of the building with and enclosed elevated crosswalk to get back and forth between the 500′ x 600′ lot on the facing grand. They could slightly reconfigure the Grand off ramp to enable visitors to enter into the complex. I wonder if they could build a parking garage over the electrical station? This could be a real neat venue.

      Perhaps SLU, Wash U or UMSL could get hockey teams too.

      • Tim E

        Would their be room for a secondary, smaller rink? I think you really need two rinks to make it at least viable for the space in terms of dollars, revenues coming in to support it. I don’t have numbers but the coolant infrastructure to maintain the ice sheet(s) is expensive to maintain and operate. The Zamboni and its driver is the cheap part

        Considering the amount of open air above the rink itself it might be even cheaper to shutdown during the summer months

      • Eric

        SLU has a club hockey team currently, and they play out in the county somewhere. They work hard to market to students to get them out to games. A rink just south of campus would be an amazing benefit to them I think. It also could pave the way for a varsity team, but there are a lot of issues with creating a new varsity team (funding, Title IX, etc)

        • John Smith

          Out of Webster Groves