Why did Chesterfield back out of sports complex deal? Dan Buck blames Jane Cunningham – STLtoday.com
By 8 a.m. the day after a Chesterfield City Council vote killed a $55 million youth sports complex’s chances in the suburb, Dan Buck says he already had three calls from other cities interested in the proposal.
Even before Monday’s vote, the area philanthropist and former sportscaster promoting the development had alternate sites within the region in mind, as well as one in the Kansas City area. His team was out meeting with municipal and school district officials about the project Tuesday, he said.
Buck declined to name the communities but said none are in St. Louis County, although he would entertain proposals there. Chesterfield is off the table, though.
“Maybe under a new council when these folks are voted out for making decisions like this,” Buck said. “Imagine how hard it would have been to get through their zoning and plan approvals.”
Buck, who counted St. Louis Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny as one of his group’s investors and megadonors Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield as philanthropic backers, had worked for over a year on a massive development anchored by indoor softball fields and volleyball and basketball courts. The 74-acre plan included office space, an educational center, retail and a 220-room hotel.
But opponents on the council raised concerns with the length of the 50-year lease and some opposed getting the city involved by buying a portion of the land for the development and leasing it back to Buck’s group, Big Sports Properties LLC.
A June 1 development agreement deadline to secure assistance from St. Louis County had already passed.
The council narrowly approved the existing agreement by a 4-3 vote in January. It declined to extend the agreement and voted 5-3 Monday to exit the contract to buy 22 acres that was to be leased to Buck’s group as part of the deal.
Chesterfield Mayor Bob Nation said he’s not aware of any other proposals for the site.
“I think it’s shortsighted,” Nation said. “I think it would have been a great deal not only for Chesterfield but the whole region.”
Three years ago, another proposal to build a regional sports complex just east of the Chesterfield Valley Athletic Complex fell apart. A Kansas City businessman had proposed soccer fields there, but the heated primary election for St. Louis County executive and a competing soccer plan backed by another county councilman ultimately swamped it.
Getting St. Louis County to kick in funds to extend infrastructure across Highway 40 was the issue both times. But this project appeared to have the backing of St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger and the region’s economic development agency, which were working on a $12 million plan to finance water and sewer extensions.
Buck said he only needed more time on his development agreement while the county finalized the infrastructure funding. He had informal commitments from banks and from the county’s industrial development authority for nearly $40 million in project financing.
“Their inability to work with St. Louis County is truly offensive,” he said of Chesterfield. “Part of this is just the whole fiefdom world we’ve created for ourselves, and no one playing well together.”
Looming behind the scenes, to hear Buck tell it, was Jane Cunningham. He accused Cunningham, a former state senator and now a member of the Monarch Fire Protection District, of ginning up opposition to the proposal.
“Everyone will know who thwarted this project,” Buck wrote in an email to Cunningham that was obtained by the Post-Dispatch.
“They won’t blame the Mayor, not the county council or Steve Stenger. They’ll blame the puppet master pulling the strings of council members… a woman who refused to learn the facts, ignores the truth when given to her and thinks the only VALUE of this project to the city is a land lease on dormant, undeveloped ground.”
Buck’s email was in response to an email Cunningham sent to supporters describing Monday night’s council meeting as a “barnburner.” But Buck’s project was only one of the items mentioned.
“I really have been kind of agnostic about that project,” Cunningham said. “I let people know there was a meeting that had a number of things on the agenda that were controversial.”
The Monarch Fire Protection District in January had raised concerns with the project because it would add additional costs without enough property tax revenue to offset them.
Cunningham said she has asked city officials to keep the fire district involved as it crafted a deal with Buck.
“Last night was the first time I saw a presentation on the project,” she said. “It’s really been done behind closed doors, and that’s what’s made it very difficult for taxpayers to understand the project.”
She didn’t lobby council members or hold meetings against the project, she said. As for Buck’s opinion of her political influence in Chesterfield, she said: “I’m very flattered.”
Ashley Lisenby of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.