Council OKs non-binding measure to halt ice rink construction

No county funds being used for construction of ice arena

Steve Stenger

Steve Stenger

By Gloria Lloyd

A new practice ice complex for the St. Louis Blues in Creve Coeur Lake Memorial Park is on hold amid questions over why the developer began work in advance of required federal approval to build an ice arena in a protected park.

The County Council voted 4-3 last week to approve a resolution calling for a halt to construction at the 40-acre site of the 250,000-square-foot, four-rink St. Louis Ice Center, which the council approved last December.

The resolution is non-binding and will have no immediate effect since the grading that already began at the site in Maryland Heights is finished, County Executive Steve Stenger said.

He supports the ice rink as a public-private partnership that would bring a $60 million investment to a county park as part of a three-way collaboration among the county, the city of Maryland Heights and a nonprofit organization, the Legacy Ice Foundation, which plans to make most ice time available to the public as part of the project.

“I’m hopeful that it makes it through and proceeds,” Stenger said. “There is no taxpayer money that is utilized to fund the facility, it’s all rental from the users. The facility is 95-percent public use. And it’s 5 percent for the Blues.

“And dramatic interactions will happen there. You’re going to have Blues players alongside young hockey players, and it’s boys and girls. The kids who came out the other night to the council to talk with their parents, it was mostly young girls, the Lady Cyclones. I didn’t even know kids existed like that. It was amazing. It’s a good project.”

The Blues currently practice at the St. Louis Mills outlet mall in Hazelwood, but the Creve Coeur project is not the team’s idea, Legacy officials said last week. The Blues support it and will donate $10 million to help build it, but are happy to stay where they are if it doesn’t work out.

The corner of Creve Coeur Park slated to be used for the arena was in a flood plain before the recent grading lifted it four feet, and the land — once a working farm — is not prime parkland, Parks Director Gary Bess told the council at a hearing last week. The site was regularly mowed by the parks department and primarily used for overflow parking for events.

“We’re not talking about the loss of parkland. We’re talking about land use,” Bess said. “What we’re proposing will not lose an acre of Creve Coeur Park, but just change its land use.”

Although the council approved the plan last year, the project caught council members’ attention again this summer when the grading raised the ire of environmentalists.

Since the county used a federal grant to purchase the park in the 1960s, the National Park Service, or NPS, has veto power over any structures or major projects there.

In an Aug. 25 letter to state officials, acting NPS director of recreation grants Roger Knowlton said that he did not believe the St. Louis Ice Center would qualify as a public facility. But a final decision has not yet been made, and Stenger said he believes that Knowlton’s statement was based on emails and letters the NPS is receiving that may have inaccurate information.

“I think that opinion will change over time because they’ll have the complete facts,” Stenger said.

The council unanimously approved the ice arena last year, before 6th District Coun-cilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, was on the council.

He is skeptical of the project, especially since his first introduction to the developers came through the complaints about premature construction, which council members say St. Louis Economic Development Partnership employees assured them was only for stormwater, not the ice arena.

That information was “at best misleading, and we can debate whether or not in-tentionally so,” Trakas said.

At the hearing, Economic Development Partnership CEO Sheila Sweeney fought back against the allegation that she or her employees might have misled the council or members of the public.

“It is absolutely a stormwater project” that benefits the park even if approvals fall through, Sweeney said. “We would not lie. We’re professional people … I don’t like what’s being said.”

The four-member alliance led by Trakas and council Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, voted for the resolution to stop construction, with 3rd District Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Huntleigh, 5th Dis-trict Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, and 7th District Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, opposed.

“Maybe the grading was done prematurely, but this is a project that’s desperately needed for our community,” Harder said.

“I voted for it,” Wasinger said about why she didn’t support stopping the project.

Page sponsored the original bill since the project is in his district, but he believes the council gave up control of the contract to Stenger.

“The council made a mistake,” Page said. “We’re not doing that anymore. We’re not going to delegate the authority to enter into agreements.”

After the hearing where the council heard directly from the developers, Page said, “We learned that the ice complex is a great idea, but the question for the council is, ‘Is the park the right place for it?'”

He would be open to the council purchasing adjacent land, such as the land a neighbor told the council he tried to sell to Legacy for $1.5 million before they went with Creve Coeur Park instead.

But Stenger said the county will not buy land for the private developer and will not pay for a “conversion,” or purchasing other property to replace the lost parkland, even if the NPS requires it as part of federal approval.

“They would pay,” he said. “I am not in-terested in purchasing land for Legacy Ice — I’m interested in helping them put their non-taxpayer-funded project in the park.”

In a testy exchange with Stenger at the Aug. 29 council meeting, Page asked the county executive if it was a good idea to hold public hearings on projects before votes. Stenger replied that each council meeting is a public hearing, and each bill is heard at three council meetings before approval. As the bill’s sponsor, Page convinced other council members to advance the ice arena, Stenger added.

“But I know the dog ate your homework and the sun was in your eyes,” Stenger said. “You have to take ownership of what you’ve done. You voted for it … I guess you were fooled again, just like you were fooled four times this year.”

Interjecting, Trakas said, “I would ask that the debate be focused on the issues and not on personal attacks. It’s beneath this body to go there.”

The 104 speakers signed up to speak at the meeting were divided between those who saw the arena as a sorely needed amenity for young hockey players in the region, and park enthusiasts who decried the loss of county parkland to a professional sports team.