Grant’s Farm’s future subject of competing visions by St. Louis Zoo, Busch family member

Proposal for Grant’s Farm hinges on lawsuit decision

The St. Louis Zoo's depiction of what Grant's Farm could look like under zoo ownership.

The St. Louis Zoo’s depiction of what Grant’s Farm could look like under zoo ownership.

By Gloria Lloyd

Competing visions for the future of Grant’s Farm emerged last week — one from St. Louis Zoo officials and one from a Busch family member who wants to keep the south county landmark the way it is.

Zoo officials announced last week they want to buy Grant’s Farm with a $27 million donation from Anheuser-Busch InBev and operate it as a conservation breeding ground and possibly a night zoo.

The plan is contingent on the Missouri Legislature and county voters approving a new sales-tax increase that would fund the farm’s millions of dollars in annual operating costs, zoo officials said.

The zoo proposal also hinges on the outcome of a lawsuit filed by four of the six children of beer magnate August A. “Gussie” Busch Jr. against two of their brothers, Billy and Adolphus, who support Billy’s competing $24 million bid to buy the property. The six siblings comprise the Busch Family Real Estate Trust that owns the 281-acre property, which has been open to the public since 1954.

In a statement, Billy Busch said maintaining family ownership of the property was important to his father, who mentioned that wish in his will, and he wants to keep the and operate it in the spirit it has always been operated, with free admission and beer, roaming animals and, he noted, with no tax dollars needed.

County Executive Steve Stenger supports the zoo’s proposal. In a lawsuit from the four other siblings and Wells Fargo, which is also part of the real-estate trust, the other Busch family members — Gertrude Busch Valentine, Beatrice Busch von Gontard, Peter Busch and Andrew Busch — said they believe the zoo and its guaranteed tax base would offer more stable ownership for the property, which served as the home of President Ulysses S. Grant before August A. Busch Sr. bought it in 1903 and began operating it as an animal preserve.

“The zoo’s purchase of this regional asset provides a way to make the zoo even stronger,” Stenger said on the zoo’s website for the proposal. “Ownership and operation of Grant’s Farm by one of the world’s great zoos is the best way to ensure both the growth of the St. Louis Zoo and Grant’s Farm.”

In the lawsuit, the Busch siblings contend Billy Busch’s offer is “detrimental to the interests of the beneficiaries,” and a study by trustee Wells Fargo found that the zoo’s offer is better and more sustainable.

“The proposed (zoo) sale is not only in the best interests of the beneficiaries of the Real Estate Trust, but is also in the best interest of St. Louis,” according to the lawsuit.

If the Legislature grants approval for the regional sales-tax increase when it convenes in January, a sales-tax increase to raise from $3.5 million to $8.5 million annually could be on the November 2016 ballot in St. Louis, St. Charles, Jefferson and Franklin counties and the city of St. Louis — although approval by only St. Louis County would be enough to sustain the operation of the facility, zoo officials said.

To gauge public support for the tax-rate hike, the zoo will use town-hall meetings, focus groups and surveys.

If approved by a judge and county voters, the zoo would keep the Clydesdales and free beer, set up a conservation breeding center and veterinary hospital and possibly add a zipline, sky ride and night zoo, according to the plans.

Billy Busch, who owns a company that brews Kraftig beer, said he would like to build a brewery and house his company’s offices at the site but other than that would keep things the way they are.

“I grew up at Grant’s Farm, it was my home, and it still feels like home to me,” Billy Busch said. “If I am fortunate enough to become the sole owner, my goal is to continue Grant’s Farm as a major family and tourist destination, just as my father did for generations for all St. Louisans.”

Under both proposals, Grant’s Farm would stay free for the foreseeable future.

It is currently run by A-B InBev, which would still operate it if either of the proposals fall through. However, the company loses from $3.5 million to $4 million annually on the park’s operation, according to the lawsuit.