The effort to build a new riverfront football stadium in St. Louis got a big boost Monday when a judge ruled that approval from city voters is not necessary to use city tax money for the project.
St. Louis Circuit Judge Tomas Frawley's ruling voided a city ordinance requiring voter approval for any project using tax dollars for a professional sports facility. He called the 2002 law's language confusing and vague.
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He also ruled that the stadium plan does not break a state law requiring it to be "adjacent" to the city's convention center, even though several blocks separate the two sites. Frawley ruled that Missouri courts have determined that "adjacent" simply means nearby.
The ruling is a win for supporters of a stadium proposal that's part of an effort to either keep the Rams in St. Louis or lure another team. The Rams currently play in the Edward Jones Dome, which is outdated by NFL standards. The new stadium would be along the Mississippi River.
Dave Peacock, a former Anheuser-Busch executive who is part of a two-person team leading a stadium task force appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon, called the ruling "a victory for a bold and promising future for the NFL in St. Louis" and the rebirth of downtown.
"As we continue to make excellent progress on the stadium project, this is a great time for everyone in the St. Louis region to rally on behalf of something that will make a difference in our economy, national profile and quality of life for generations to come," Peacock said in a statement.
John Ammann, a Saint Louis University law professor who filed a separate suit that sought a city vote on the stadium plan, said it was "a terrible day for local democracy."
"The voters and taxpayers now have no formal voice in whether they will pay for a new stadium, or how much," Ammann said.
The ruling came in a lawsuit that the St. Louis Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority, which operates the Edward Jones Dome, filed against the city to block enforcement of the St. Louis ordinance. The dome operators support the stadium proposal, which would extend bonds that are still paying for construction of the dome.
Mary Ellen Ponder, chief of staff to Mayor Francis Slay, called the ruling "very disappointing" and said the city will "honor the spirit of the ordinance."
"There will be public meetings and other opportunities for public participation regarding financial assistance for a new stadium," Ponder said in a news release issued by the city.
Ammann's clients had sought to intervene in the suit, a request Frawley denied in a separate ruling Monday.
The Rams are year-to-year on their lease at the dome, which opened in 1995, the year the Rams arrived from Los Angeles.
Rams owner Stan Kroenke is part of a group planning a new stadium in suburban Los Angeles, leading to speculation the team will move back to the West Coast, perhaps as early as 2016.
The ruling comes about a week before the stadium task force is scheduled to meet with NFL officials in Chicago. With three teams — the Rams, the San Diego Chargers and the Oakland Raiders — all seeking moves to Los Angeles, the league is trying to sort out who should stay and who should go.
The St. Louis stadium proposal was announced in January. The open-air stadium is expected to cost $998 million. Bond extensions would provide $201 million — $66 million from the city and $135 million from the state. A combination of seat licenses, state tax credits and other incentives would help pay for it. About half the money would come from the team owner and an NFL loan program.
The stadium could be ready for the 2019 season.