BY MATTHEW HATHAWAY
Posted: Saturday, June 2, 2012

ST. LOUIS • After rejecting the Rams' plan to improve the Edward Jones Dome, the public agency that operates the downtown facility said it wants to negotiate with the franchise before the Dome-renovation issue — and, possibly, the future of the Rams in St. Louis — is put in the hands of arbitrators this month.

The St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, which manages the Dome, rejected on Friday a Rams' proposal that called for much of the stadium to be rebuilt with bigger VIP areas, more concession facilities and a sliding roof panel. City officials have estimated the team's proposal could cost $700 million and would make it impossible to book large conventions during construction.

The Rams' proposal was a counteroffer to a much more modest renovation plan put forward Feb. 1 by the CVC. Under that plan, the team would have picked up 52 percent of the $124 million construction costs. The Rams plan did not indicate how much, if anything, the franchise would be willing to contribute.

The dueling plans come as a result of a clause in the team's 1995 lease of the Dome that requires it to be a "first-tier" facility in 15 categories by 2015. If that doesn't happen, the Rams can terminate the lease after the 2014 season — 10 years before the 30-year lease would otherwise expire.

In a statement on its rejection of the Rams' plan, the CVC suggested it hopes to find some middle ground with the Rams before a June 15 deadline triggers mandatory, binding arbitration.

"The St. Louis CVC expressed to the St. Louis Rams that it believes that it is in the best interest of the community and the Rams to engage in meaningful dialogue over the next two weeks," the statement said, "and (the CVC) looks forward to the opportunity to do so at the earliest convenience of Rams management."

A Rams spokeswoman said that only Kevin Demoff, the team's executive vice president for football operations, is authorized to speak publicly about Dome-renovation issues and that he was unavailable Friday. The spokeswoman read a statement she attributed to Demoff that appears to welcome the informal negotiations.

"We are in receipt of the CVC's letter today and share their belief that the two sides should engage in further discussions," the statement said. "We believe this would be a productive next step in the first-tier process."

Although the lease requires the CVC and the Rams to meet before arbitration "to attempt to resolve their differences," it sets few ground rules for those talks.

Any proposals made during the talks would be confidential, according to the lease, and the two sides are free to soften their positions without fear that those concessions will be used against them during arbitration.

Still, it is difficult to imagine the CVC and the Rams reaching an agreement soon with their visions for a renovated Dome so far apart.

The CVC's rejection of the Rams plan was no surprise, said Jeff Rainford, chief of staff to St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, who appoints five commissioners on the CVC's 11-member board.

"It was expected," Rainford said. "I think the Rams probably expected it ... and are preparing for arbitration."

If no deal is reached in the informal talks, the lease says "the parties shall proceed to mandatory arbitration by June 15." The two sides should make "reasonable efforts" for the arbitration to be completed by Dec. 31, according to the lease.

What happens between those dates is likely to remain secret. Both sides will plead their cases in front of three arbitrators. If the parties can't agree on who should serve as arbitrators, they will take turns striking names from a list of 13 arbitrators selected by the American Arbitration Association. At least seven individuals on the list must be retired judges who do not live in Missouri or California, the Rams' former home state.

At the end of this process, the arbitrators must either endorse one of the existing renovation proposals or, more likely, develop a separate plan that the arbitrators believe will meet the first-tier requirement.

After that happens, the CVC will have 60 days to decide its next move. It can agree to move forward with the plan backed by arbitrators or it can do nothing. If it picks the latter, the Rams could terminate the lease or continue at the Dome by re-upping on a year-to-year basis.

Kim Bell of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.