Talks over Rams lease have St. Louis on edge

ST. LOUIS (AP) - Fans are wondering about the fate of football in St. Louis as a deadline approaches for a plan to upgrade the home of the Rams.

Next Wednesday, Feb. 1, is the deadline for the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission to outline how it will transform the Edward Jones Dome into a "first-tier" stadium by 2015. If it fails to do so, the Rams can break their lease - and potentially move - after the 2014 season.

The commission has been meeting with city and county officials for several weeks on how to upgrade the dome, and how to pay for it. No one is discussing details. Messages left with Mayor Francis Slay's chief of staff Jeff Rainford and with St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley's spokesman, Mac Scott, were not returned.

Commission President Kathleen Ratcliffe declined comment. The commission said in a statement that the likelihood of success "is enhanced when the parties can make a frank exchange of information, on an ongoing confidential basis."

The stakes could be high.

Los Angeles is seeking an NFL team. Rams owner Stan Kroenke is a Missouri native and played a pivotal role in bringing the team to St. Louis 17 years ago. But he owns an estate in Malibu, is reportedly interested in buying the Los Angeles Dodgers and has been noncommittal about the future of his football team.

Adding to the worry was the announcement this month that the Rams would play a "home" game in London each of the next three seasons. Commissioner Roger Goodell has repeatedly spoken of possibly locating a team in London one day, and Kroenke is a majority shareholder in the English soccer club Arsenal.

Kroenke did not return messages seeking comment. Rams Chief Operating Officer Kevin Demoff on Wednesday declined comment.

Kroenke's only recent public appearance in St. Louis came earlier this month when he introduced Jeff Fisher as the new coach. Asked about the future of the Rams in St. Louis, Kroenke simply noted the deadline for the dome improvement plan.

"The chronology of what occurs with the lease is public knowledge," he said. "I don't think for me to comment on that process is ... particularly timely."

Football stadium issues have plagued St. Louis for decades and already cost the city one NFL team.

The football Cardinals spent 28 seasons in St. Louis, sharing old Busch Stadium with baseball's Cardinals. Frustrated by the inability to get his own stadium, Bill Bidwill moved the franchise to Arizona after the 1987 season.

Starved for football, St. Louis built the dome with taxpayer money - it was financed largely with $256 million in revenue bonds. And it worked: Prior to the 1995 season, civic leaders persuaded St. Louis native Georgia Frontiere to move the Rams from Los Angeles to her hometown. Kroenke bought a 40 percent interest. Frontiere died in 2008, and two years later, her children sold the team to Kroenke.

For a brief time, the dome was a raucous, happy place. Noise levels during the "Greatest Show on Turf" years of the late 1990s and early 2000s were so high that opponents complained they couldn't hear the quarterback signals. The Rams went to two Super Bowls, winning in 2000 and losing in 2002.

Since then, the on-field fortunes have declined markedly - the Rams were 2-14 in 2011 and 15-65 over the past five seasons. And critics contend the dome is outdated and unappealing.

Though not quite two decades old, only 10 NFL stadiums are older and some of those, such as Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., and Soldier Field in Chicago - have undergone multimillion-dollar renovations.

The lease agreement keeps the Rams in St. Louis through 2025 - but allows the lease to be broken every 10 years unless the dome is judged to be in the "first tier," or top 25 percent, of all stadiums. About $30 million in publicly funded improvements persuaded the Rams to maintain the lease after the 2005 marker.

It won't be so easy this time. Given the economy, taxpayer help seems unlikely, especially since $24 million in public money - $12 million from the state of Missouri and $6 million each for St. Louis city and county - are paying off the dome debt through 2025.

Even the beloved baseball Cardinals had to pay for their own ballpark when the new Busch Stadium was built in 2006.

After the commission presents its plan, the Rams have until March 1 to accept or reject the offer. Arbitration would begin June 15 if no agreement is reached, and the arbitration process could last through the end of the year.

AP Sports Writer R.B. Fallstrom contributed to this report.

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