Notes from a Conflicted Soccer Fan

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Truth is, I can check off most of the boxes: I grew up watching Soccer Made in Germany on Channel 9. I played ball in the CYC. I “enjoyed” a brief, unsuccessful college career in the sport, played locally. I spent dozens of nights competing in rec leagues at the Soccer Dome, through smothering heat and teeth-rattling cold. I broke bones, many of them. I coached the game for seven years, coming all the way back ‘round to the CYC. I’ve watched soccer matches on every broadcast medium in St. Louis venues, from closed-circuit TV in theaters in the ‘70s to HD splendor in packed soccer bars today.

In theory, all of this make me “a soccer guy.”

In reality, I’m also a guy that frets about public funding mechanisms for stadia.

So I wasn’t sure how I’d vote, if an MLS proposal were put before the voters this spring. As it stands today, that vote won’t happen, squashed in Aldermanic committee. Because I didn’t know how I’d vote — but, in my secret heart-of-hearts, wanted to vote for Major League Soccer’s years-overdue arrival here — I sent a note to a super-connected soccer supporter in town, suggesting that I could put together some well-attended meetings in South City. He, in turn, passed that info to an information rainmaker with the preferred MLS expansion group, SC STL.

In my note, sent not quite a month ago, I spoke of: my wanting to find out answers for my own questions; of my ability to bring together both supporters and (yes) opponents of public funding; and of the fact that I wasn’t looking for any money in this, that it was purely my attempt to pull people together in a few suitable spaces, to talk about the stadium in an organized, public fashion.

I’ll give one guess as to how many calls I got back. (And it’s a number less than that one guess.)

In a piece by Mike Faulk and Koran Addo, published on stltoday.com, Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia (D-6) notes this:

Ingrassia also said the ownership group didn’t spend enough time reaching out to the community as their plan developed.

“It’s not just that they didn’t include me in the process early enough, but the public in general,” Ingrassia said. “There should’ve been community hearings and an ability formed at the Board of Aldermen to digest the details, but for the public to as well.”

As a quick moment of honesty, I’m slightly irritated by this on a personal level, that my experience in local journalism, civic, political and even soccer circles didn’t merit so much as a call back, or a “no thanks, we have other approaches for public engagement that we want to pursue.” I honestly feel that the informational meetings could’ve been a small, but well-intentioned asset in the stadium effort; it would’ve at least hinted at smaller, cheaper, organic ways of spreading information as a part of the overall plan.

My real annoyance, then, lies in the idea that yet another project has fallen into the classic St. Louis pattern of top-down construction. The folks with the plan presented the plan. The plan didn’t go as expected. (Hello, Governor Greitens!) And now the plan will be pulled back and worked on in some handsome, wood-paneled meeting room at the MAC, well away from public input. Again. As always.

Not being in the prediction business, I’m unsure if the vote will be renewed this year, or going forward. Until then, I’ll read whatever stories I find and I’ll try to keep an open mind. When-and-if a vote comes, I’m not even sure how I’ll cast a ballot; my brain and heart might have some consensus building of their own to do.

What I’m pretty sure about is that I won’t spend too much time caring one way of the other. Like a referee at kickoff, my vote may just come down to a coin flip.

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  • Lucas Strittmatter

    I appreciate the article but let’s keep in mind that this is a soccer stadium. It’s not a community master planning effort. To that end, it would be a great opportunity to funnel development around the stadium but it’s a more difficult sell with only 16 home games a year.

  • Kevin Farrell

    Despite my earlier comments and sharing Tom’s conflicted feelings and recognizing that the city and state have very limited resources and major, more critical needs like security and infrastructure, and despite my strong opposition to using more sales taxes to support this project – I really want to see an MLS team here. Let’s look at the other perspective – A group of wealthy investors are willing to come into our community and invest $240 million in a growing business in an international industry that appeals to millennials and immigrants. They will invest in the city and the county. They will hire 400 people. Their business will fill a huge physical gap in our downtown and generate direct business for other downtown businesses. They need help with costs of building their headquarters but will contribute to its contruction costs, cover all ongoing maintenance costs and allow the city to own the building as a permanent asset for the city. Should we not do what we can to get that business here? Who cares if the owners are millionaires? They are taking a huge risk and will not show a return for many years. They could invest in other businesses or other markets and see a greater and faster return but are willing to invest in our community.Let’s get creative on funding and financing and sharpen the pencil on the cost of the stadium.

  • Kevin Farrell

    This issue is another example where we are struggling without (1) a clear and committed Economic Development plan and (2) a regional approach to growing the region. An economic development plan would help to prioritize and measure the myriad opportunities now emerging in the city (and all seeking incentives). Regional collaboration and shared goals might allow us to better prioritize opportunities as well share the financial burden for regional assets. The Bikes and Trails model is a good one. The Zoo Museum District a good model that should now be expanded to share cost of these regional cultural assets to some degree with our surrounding counties on both sides of the river. The city should pay a disproportionate share when assets are located in the city and more direct benefits are received. And, the same would be true if regional cultural assets are built in the County. Figuring out the % to be allotted to each county would be a challenge but at least we should start with agreement that these assets have regional value and serve residents throughout. In the meantime, if we determine that a soccer team and stadium is a regional asset than St. Louis County and other counties in the metro area should share in the cost (and revenue, where applicable). All of this being said, it may not happen ever and certainly not in time to address the MLS opportunity. I am upset that another multimillion dollar decision for the region is going to feel rushed and made with the gun of deadline pointed at our heads.

  • To add a gripe onto some gripes… I think one of my issues with this process is how some officials/media/etc (not named NextSTL) are communicating this process. And some of these media/officials are my favorite ones even. I just… would love some more collective critical thinking to be done across the board, instead of the overused lines, “Studies have shown public money for stadiums is a bad investment.” or “St. Louis is a soccer city!” or “We HAVE to invest in our city.” or “Let the county pay for it!”

    I would rather see some time invested in the middle ground… Okay, we have a very large, very visible (globally), and growing business wanting to move into our city… they also want too much money from taxpayers… we also don’t know how much is reasonable… It would have been nice to start a conversation about how the city could benefit from a specific investment, how strategically this could make sense for the county to get involved financially, and decide for ourselves what its worth to us to get involved? And I realize this is super political… its just frustrating.

    And I know a few people actually did have some more detailed ideas about how to structure a better deal for everyone, but our collective 700 followers aren’t going to get the message out the way it should be.

    This isn’t a solution really… I don’t have one… just a gripe – I just wish officials with bigger voices were a bit more versatile when it comes to making our city a more exciting place to live.

    Sincerely,
    – Another conflicted soccer fan.

  • HawkSTL

    Well said — and we wonder why positive things are difficult to accomplish in STL. There will be no MLS team, no stadium, and no N/S MetroLink. Wash, rinse, repeat.

  • Mike

    For what it’s worth, SC STL did have a town hall meeting that allowed anyone and everyone to ask questions and provide input on the stadium plan. That event was recorded and published via podcast by STLFC’s supporter’s group for anyone that wants to listen. A few reporters were in attendance at that meeting. In fact I believe Mike Faulk was either at that one or the other annual general meeting the supporter’s group hosted.

    One town hall meeting on their own home turf doesn’t exactly qualify as community engagement, but after criticism from Greitens and Ingrassia I think it is only fair to also point out that this group isn’t completely hiding behind closed doors working on back room deals as accused. They have hosted a few open events, but you have to know where to look, which is probably the real criticism. They have been accessible but not as much so to city voters who live outside STLFC’s community, and that is not okay.

    Thomas, I’m a fellow TGE resident and love what you have done with Tick Tock. I would encourage you to pursue these ideas with or without SC STL’s participation. We don’t need to ask for permission to meet and learn from each other. I think a lot of people are hungry to have this conversation and sort through the genuine conflict between heart and mind that you describe experiencing. And if you’re not still interested, that’s okay. You’ve done a great job of facilitating community discussion in our neighborhood already and I appreciate that.

    • Steve Ole Olson

      Is the meeting you reference the Town Hall on Dec 1st? If so, that was specifically promoted as a STLFC event that ‘may stray into topics such as MLS’

      • Mike

        Yes, that’s the one. It was definitely advertised as a fan-oriented town hall meeting focused on STLFC. Some reporters and outsiders knew to show up for it and even asked questions on the mic, so clearly some non-STLFC people found their way to the event.

        This is why I said “They [ownership] have been accessible but not as much so to city voters who live outside STLFC’s community, and that is not okay.” If you’re in that circle, you seem to have a lot of accessibility, but they haven’t done a good job of proactively reaching out to people beyond that circle.

  • David

    Another big part of the St. Louis pattern is that we expect people to come in with piles of their own money and ask us all of us how we would like them to spend it.

    It is unrealistic. It is unrealistic for a stadium and it is unrealistic for N/S metrolink. The feds have a process we will do studies and we will raise money, but inevitably there will be people in the papers complaining about how no one ever asked them if they wanted a stop here or there. We should get that fed money, but they should drop it off at the door of each person to tell them how they want it spent.

    Yeah, community feedback should be a thing. We should take ownership of our community and demand that people who develop here acknowledge and build with us. But there is difference between that and expecting people to show up with cash for our dreams. NextSTL flirts with this line a lot.

    I am sure in 10 years the equivalent of NextSTL will run a story on the MLS stadium that could have been or the metrolink expansion that could have been.

    • Alex Ihnen

      nextSTL does more than flirt with that line, we’re married to it. It’s actually the essence of city-building – the idea that we all get a say in how our community changes. This of course has limits – which is what I love to explore. With MLS (and many other issues), when there’s millions in subsidies or local incentives in play, the community clearly has a right (obligation?) to weigh in.

      Where I do sympathize with investors/developers/planners, is that I think the demand for local input may be at a high point. Local, grassroots input does not necessarily equate to good planning. But then again, with such as dearth of planning by government agencies across STL, one can hardly blame individuals for jumping into the void.

  • JB

    Ald. Ingrassia was quoted yesterday as saying that the city at least needs it to be cost neutral which is a fair position. The deal is essentially a build-to-suit investment property. Landlord will help build it, Tenant will operate it, maintain it and pay rent while collecting the revenue from MLS and other events. In a private sector investment scenario, the Landlord/Developer has to have a certain level of return/profit guaranteed from the rent stream. In a public sector investment, the compromise is that the city can lower the guaranteed return over the lease term to where it only equals their investment with the “profit” coming in the form of surrounding development, civic pride, sales tax, attractiveness to millenials, jobs, however they want to categorize the side benefits.

    Her quoted number was a $60 million contribution, which is much more aggressive than I assumed the city would be.

    Now that their initial proposal was shot down to the point of embarrassment, I hope SC STL comes back with a more feasible proposal that everyone can rally around. The one crucial element that this scenario has that the Rams didn’t is that the proposed owners of the franchise actually want to be in STL.

    • STLrainbow

      Just to clarify, are you saying you read Ald.. Ingrassia says $60M in city $$ would be a consideration (down from the requested $80M, I believe)? I hadn’t heard that and would be interested in a link/source if you recall where that was from.

  • Joe Bonwich

    [cough, cough] CityArchRiver. CitytoRiver. [cough, cough]

  • ManchesterUnited

    I support the stadium. I think good will come from it. The good includes local jobs, city pride and unity, greater national and international exposure, helping area businesses with dining, entertainment, hotels, tourism, and just bringing folks in to an area that they probably would not have ever been before. Novelty does that. People are curious. It could attract different kinds of people (people who don’t pay much attention to baseball or hockey).

    There’s not much that holds this city together as a people and it doesn’t attract outsiders much. What reason do people have to come to St. Louis? Even people within the region hardly ever come in to downtown. For what purpose? For outsiders, it’s probably fans of the opposing team that come in from other cities. If St. Louis leaders were smart, they would use this as an opportunity to grow soccer fans here so that St. Louis would gain the reputation as a major soccer town, drawing in people who might not otherwise have a reason to come. What if soccer could be as successful as baseball? Imagine the possibilities.

    A new stadium could help to deflect the bad reputation of St. Louis by putting people’s eyes on the soccer ball. We need to refocus the public’s attention away from some of the serious issues (high crime, poor city leadership, painting of Ferguson police as animals, etc.). Need something exciting and interesting.

    • STLEnginerd

      Distractions are nearly as good as actually fixing the problems…

      Sorry for the snark but it is true. Hopefully you were being facetious. If sports distracted us from the crime rate then no one would have been talking about it 2 years ago when we had 3 major leagues sports downtown.

      You say we need something exciting and interesting. Well I think the arch, the cardinals, the blues, the city museum, and a soon to be complete aquarium qualify. When do we have enough that’s interesting novelty. Novelty by its nature wears off leaving you in search of the next big attraction that will bring people downtown. What we REALLY need is people downtown. Not 17 days out of the year but everyday residents workers and shoppers. That’s what makes cities exciting.

      The positives you cite in your first paragraph are valid and conotes a monetary value. If the city can safely get more back than they put in then it’s a good investment. The city should not be speculating on the supposed future wild popularity and explosive growth of soccer, they should assume conservative growth targets. Even if it did grow at a massive rate that just increases the likelihood they’d be asking for a new larger stadium replacement even sooner. I want a MLS team too but the city needs to be wise stewards of the people taxes. Intangibles have nothing to do with it.

      Also I don’t think painting of police officers as animals qualifies as a “serious issue” no matter which side of that issue you stand on. THAT is a distraction.

      • JB

        I’ll be very curious to see if the aquarium proceeds as planned. The developer is also part of SC STL and I have no doubt his plan was in some way tied to the stadium being built next door.

        • STLrainbow

          LHM should be deciding on the operator for the aquarium soon, according to a Post-Dispatch piece from a few days ago. (The group behind Landry’s is once such operator so I wouldn’t doubt they land the deal.)

          I look forward to seeing how the Union Station project turns out; projections are for a million people/yr. to visit the new Union Station attractions once they are up and running.

  • bob osterholt

    I have to think some greater public airing of the plan ahead of time would have been the right path towards greater acceptance, BUT, as complicated and involved as this process is (for any public/private structures funding and construction), those discussions and negotiations need to remain in the realm of the do’ers’ and not the ‘public’. You just can’t have that many cooks in the kitchen, and get the job done in a timely manner. And, yes, I would vote FOR, and be on the season ticket holders waiting list!

  • John

    The ROI calculation should factor in the time/value of money, partularly when there will be a multi-million dollar “ask” for a public handout to modernize and upgrade the “aging” soccer stadium in about 20 years.

    Hello Busch Stadium, TWA Dome and Kiel Center! Lessons learned the hard way, or were any lessons learned at all about long-term stadium maintenance?

    Personally, I’m glad that Missouri Gov. Greitens is opposed to public funding of stadiums; however, he is willing to keep the lines of communication open to other options. I want MLS in St. Louis like everyone else, but I don’t want to throw money down the drain.

  • STLEnginerd

    I really don’t know how much a MLS franchise is worth to STL. I think the representatives have a responsibility to show whatever the investment that a conservative estimate of new tax revenue shows a comfortable tangible ROI. The elected officials of the city should base their proposed contribution on that criteria only. The county and state should do the same.

    That said the average voter is not equipped to make a determination as to whether or at what level to support public financing of a stadium. Putting a complex issue such this to a public vote will result only in a referendum on the perceived openness of the process and the trust people have in their elected officials to do what is in their best interests. In short I think no matter what number is on the ballot it will be a tough vote in the best of circumstances. By bypassing public engagement the SCSTL only ensures its failure.

    • TIm E

      Agree, I don’t think most voters including myself are equipped or nearly spend the time needed to understand most of the issues put on a ballot. What I have been looking for myself at the ballot box is clarity.. In other words for something like a MLS stadium, I want to see a ballot noting x dollars or x percent of sale tax /property assessmetn increase to pay for this y based on a reasonable estimate of cost. so on.
      ..
      I would also disagree. A lot of public engagement gets you a lot of opinions nor will public engagement resolve what SCSTL needs to do first. First SCSTL needs to decide what support they think they have or don’t have (Politically and within the community), what they are willing to invest themselves for a return, and then come up with a tangible plan for public support.
      .
      Messy now but SCSTL either got ahead of itself when April ballot was floated or they might have found out what they needed to know in terms of public support via media. My take is the loss of Rams is not generating the desire support for MLS replacement franchise as hoped for so it goes back to the group looking at much bigger investment from themselves and or an expanded real estate deal gets introduced. . .

  • RJ

    Very well said. I too would like to see an MLS team and new downtown stadium even though it’s difficult to justify the money but I get tired of the backroom deals and the arrogance of its our money we make the choices. When they ask for $80 million in public support then we should have a voice in this process and it is the fans that support their product because we like soccer. If they can’t be inclusive then to hell with them.