Political and business leaders in St. Louis were scrambling yesterday to save their city's bid for a National Football League expansion franchise after a subcommittee in the Missouri State Legislature voted Wednesday against state funding for a proposed downtown domed stadium and convention center.
"It's far from over," said Missouri House speaker Bob Griffin, despite the 9-7 committee vote to deny an initial $4.5 million in funding for the $200 million project. Griffin hopes to overturn the negative vote next month when the entire budget committee meets.
The stadium project, which is supposed to be funded by the state, county and city, seems likely to remain engulfed in controversy even if the funding is approved, and that
may boost the chances other cities seeking NFL teams, including Baltimore.
City comptroller Virvus Jones is opposing the project, and a state legislator who voted against it, Elbert Walton, called it "welfare for the rich, a method by which the rich can perpetuate their riches while ignoring the needs of those who need food, housing and medical care."
Jones has called Jerry Clinton and Fran Murray, the businessmen heading the St. Louis expansion effort, "used-car salesmen and flim-flam artists," even though they provided Jones with Super Bowl tickets and accommodations last month.
If the project isn't approved, St. Louis' attempt to get an expansion team would appear to be doomed. The football Cardinals left after the 1987 season for Phoenix because Busch Stadium wasn't deemed appropriate for football.
The timing of the controversy couldn't come at a worse time for St. Louis because if the league goes ahead with its plan to add two expansion teams for 1993, it will have to name them within a year.
Expansion will be one of the items on the agenda when the owners meet in Hawaii next month, although the NFL hasn't set a timetable for picking the cities.
The controversy will raise questions about whether St. Louis ever will build the project, even if this funding is approved. From 1984 -- when Cardinals owner William V. Bidwill warned he'd move if a new stadium wasn't built -- to 1987, the city and county came up with various stadium projects, but all fell through. This project was developed after the team left.
Murray, who owns 49 percent of the New England Patriots, said that if the funding isn't in place when the league starts to review the cities, "We will miss this round of expansion. We will not be selected, and we can look forward to a lapse of 15 or 20 years. The last expansion occurred that many years ago ."
But Murray said he doesn't think there will be a "long-term negativeimpact" on the city's expansion chances if the vote is overturned.
St. Louis' problems could help other expansion hopefuls, but Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said Baltimore's bid will stand on its merits and that he is concentrating on firming up his plans to head the Baltimore delegation to the March meetings.
Pepper Rodgers, who is leading the Memphis, Tenn., expansion effort for Federal Express owner Fred Smith, predicted Baltimore and Memphis would get the two teams. He said the stadium controversy would hurt St. Louis and said plans by Charlotte, N.C., for building a stadium with private funds could run into difficulty, although Charlotte officials insist they'll have no problems. If Memphis gets a team, it would play in the Liberty Bowl.
Meanwhile, Jacksonville, Fla., another contender, helped its chances when its city council passed a $60 million plan this week to renovate the Gator Bowl.