Formerly Homeless Man Threatens Lawsuit Over St. Louis Stadium

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A rendering of the proposed St. Louis stadium before Gov. Jay Nixon announced the plan to build it. CREDIT: (AP PHOTO/JEFF ROBERSON)

A St. Louis resident who was formerly homeless and wants to see the city devote more money to social services and homelessness this week threatened a lawsuit against the city of St. Louis if it moves ahead with a plan to fund a new NFL stadium without giving the public a say in the process.

The man, William White, is a St. Louis resident and city taxpayer, according to a letter from his lawyers to the city of St. Louis. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch first reported the letter, written by St. Louis University law professor John Ammann and three SLU law students, on Tuesday. Though specific plans are unclear, the city of St. Louis and state of Missouri could use as much as $400 million in public funds to help build a new stadium for the NFL’s St. Louis Rams, whose owner Stan Kroenke has also explored the possibility of moving the team back to Los Angeles, where the franchise played from 1946 to 1994.

But according to the letter addressed to St. Louis city counselor Winston Calvert, the funding plan could violate city code that requires a public hearing and a public referendum to devote money to a pro sports facility. No lawsuit has been filed, but the letter threatens a suit if the city does not begin preparing for a hearing and referendum. City officials working on the stadium plan have said that because a full financial plan has not been developed, they are not sure if a vote would be required. But even absent the requirement, White wants to use a hearing to draw attention to larger issues facing the city (the state House of Representatives held its own hearing in March).

“Mr. White believes a public hearing would allow for a thorough public discussion about community priorities, and allow him to make his request that the City spend at least 2% of the public funds it plans to use for the Stadium Project to address homelessness in the city,” the letter states. “The City rarely uses general revenue to fund homelessness programs, and Mr. White believes there should be a discussion of how the community can address serious human needs, while it also considers spending hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds for the Stadium project. His goal is to garner public support for a variety of other community initiatives if the community is also being asked to fund the Stadium Project.”

“The threat of the lawsuit is silly,” Jeff Rainford, St. Louis mayor Francis Slay’s consultant on stadium issues, said at a conference Tuesday, according to the Post-Dispatch. “But the homeless part is not. And it’s misinformed. This mayor and this city have done more than any in this region to address homelessness, and yet we keep getting this nonsense.”

But the concern that spending sizable amounts of public money on stadiums — which boosters pitch as economic boons — while ignoring other priorities is a valid one, as previous stadium projects have shown.

After spending $500 million on a new NFL stadium, Cincinnati sold off a public hospital to fill a budget hole. Glendale, Ariz. laid off public workers and shuttered some other city services and programs after spending hundreds of millions on a hockey arena; with the arena and city in financial trouble, it nearly had to put public buildings up as collateral on its debt. Fiscal experts in Washington D.C. have worried that a funding plan for a new Major League Soccer stadium could jeopardize plans to address homelessness in the nation’s capital.

These are just a few examples.

St. Louis, which continues to face complications around its stadium, may or may not be on a tight deadline to determine the future stadium plans. Kroenke, the Rams owner, is still actively pursuing stadium options around Los Angeles, and multiple cities near L.A. are pitching their own plans too. As is usual when it comes to Los Angeles, NFL officials are preaching patience while other owners and insiders continue to insist that the league is serious about making a return to the nation’s second largest city.

But the concerns White raised are too often left out of these conversations before the stadiums are actually approved and built, to the detriment of the communities around them. So as St. Louis continues to push forward with stadium plans, the public ought to have the chance to consider what spending this kind of money could mean for the broader community, and not just with half-baked economic impact plans that promise growth that will never happen.