When Centene Corp. announced its intention last fall to move downtown, business and political leaders hailed it as a historic moment.
More than the prestige of adding a 27-story tower to the skyline, or the economic benefit of adding hundreds of jobs, or the thrill of swiping a corporate headquarters from the suburbs, was the signal it sent: Downtown St. Louis is back.
"Success," Mayor Francis Slay penned on his website, "breeds success."
But now city officials are wrestling with a much different equation: What follows failure?
After months of negotiations did not bear fruit, it became increasingly evident that the city's Centene celebration was premature. On Wednesday, the company made it official, confirming in a brief statement that it would not be part of the Cardinals' plans for a Ballpark Village.
Exit jubilation. Enter doubt.
Frustrated city officials find themselves wondering what went wrong, and whether an ambitious project like Ballpark Village is even possible in the current economy. At least one alderman is questioning whether the Cardinals need to tear up their current business arrangement. Several at City Hall are calling for something — anything — to be done at the site, prime downtown real estate that will be at the heart of baseball's All-Star Game next year.
Ballpark Village, billed as the city's reward for public support for the Cardinals' new ballpark, has already been beset by delays. Now, at least this much seems clear: St. Louis will endure a third season with a crater of dust next to its ballpark. How much longer will it be there? Nobody seems to know.
Centene, which specializes in Medicaid administration, had pitched moving from its current base in Clayton into a $250 million retail and office complex on the edge of Ballpark Village, a deal that would have been laden with $78 million in tax incentives.
"The city staff worked long hours, nights and weekends all the way through Easter to forge an agreement," Slay's chief of staff, Jeff Rainford, said of the Centene deal. "Maybe it was a square peg in a round hole."
The firm's withdrawal is not necessarily a fatal blow to Ballpark Village: The Cardinals' plans for shops, restaurants and a museum next to their home field existed long before Centene entered the picture.
The exit, however, threatens to undermine public confidence in the project.
"We need to get some plan in place right now to address Ballpark Village," said Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed.
Leaders in Jefferson City and City Hall have long coveted the conversion of six downtown blocks into an entertainment district that could generate visitors and tax revenue even when baseball is not in session.
The promise of Ballpark Village was a key reason the city agreed to waive the 5 percent tax on tickets at the new stadium. If the first phase of Ballpark Village is not up by 2011, the team is on the hook for an annual $3 million penalty to the city.
But for the Cardinals, that's roughly the equivalent of a second baseman. Meanwhile, city officials fear that when the 2009 Major League All-Star Game comes to St. Louis, fans and media from around the U.S. will be greeted by a giant patch of dirt.
"Everybody wants the city to show its best face, and it appears we are going to have a hole there," said Alderman Phyllis Young. "The question is: 'How do you deal with a hole when you want to showcase the city?'"
The team could soon feel pressure from the city to do something with the site — even if it's as simple as paving the area for an All-Star fan zone, said city Comptroller Darlene Green.
"The Cardinals and city leaders need to focus on removing the unsightly hole in the middle of our downtown," Green said. "Work needs to start now on a plan to put St. Louis' best foot forward during All-Star week."
Veteran Alderman Fred Wessels, chairman of the Housing and Urban Development Committee, thinks the team might need to go a step further. Wessels suggested that the Cardinals may want to reconsider their agreement with the Cordish Co., a Baltimore development firm that has built trendy urban shopping and nightlife spots around the country.
"Cordish was sold to the city by the Cardinals as a developer with great retail relationships, firm financial footing and the ability to get large-scale developments like this one done," Wessels said. "In my opinion, Cordish has not performed. As difficult as it might be at this time, I think the Cardinals and the city should look at another developer."
But a colleague, Alderman Stephen Conway, took a broader view. The economy has turned sharply since the project was announced. It's possible, he said, that a project like Ballpark Village just isn't viable in the current climate.
"The overall economic factors are too much to overcome at this point in time — there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty about the direction the economy is taking," Conway said. "It's almost become a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Still, the Cardinals and Cordish insist that their overall plan remains in place.
"Our vision has not changed," the firms said in a joint statement. "Ballpark Village will be a world-class mixed-use project that will positively transform the city."
Ballpark Village, however, is not the only downtown development that has had trouble getting started. The Bottle District, an entertainment district marked to spring up next to the Edward Jones Dome, also has faced delays.
Eugene Muscat, a professor of management at the University of San Francisco, said this is a bad time for any project the size of Ballpark Village. With the nation's economy in trouble and consumers losing confidence, most companies in the retail and entertainment business aren't looking to expand. Rather, they are looking to cut underperforming operations.
"The national players, they are not going to be available," Muscat said. "Right now, everybody is hunkering down."
Yet Jim Cloar, head of the Downtown St. Louis Partnership, remains bullish on the area. He points to the scores of new lofts, and the many smaller stores that have emerged in the central business district. Centene's withdrawal, he said, is just a "hiccup."
"Those folks who are predisposed to feel negative are just going to feel reinforced," Cloar said. "We tried to take two steps forward instead of one — and it didn't work out."