As copies of the Rams’ application to leave St. Louis began to circulate earlier this month, Robert Blitz was quietly indignant.
“I’m going to be polite and just say that their proposal and the facts contained in there are inaccurate,” he said. “And that’s the polite word. If I were just a fan, I’d be very irate.”
The application, after all, was a repudiation not only of the project that has consumed Blitz for the last 15 months but also the city where he was raised and made his career. The 26-page document derided the St. Louis economy, characterized efforts to build a new stadium as inadequate and ominously said the plan Blitz helped propose would put any team “well on the road to financial ruin.”
Things would only get worse the following week. On Jan. 12, 30 of 32 NFL owners voted to let the Rams move from St. Louis, their home for more than 20 years, to a new stadium to be built in Los Angeles. It seems unlikely St. Louis will remain a home for an NFL team and it’s unclear if the stadium itself will ever be built.
In retrospect, perhaps it was an impossible fight: The Rams appeared determined to move. It certainly was a task sure to make someone unhappy, particularly a significant cross-section of city and state taxpayers who were reluctant to foot the bill for the project, particularly without their explicit say-so.
To be Missouri Lawyers Weekly’s Lawyer of the Year, however, is not always a matter of winning outright. Blitz is above all a lawyer, and a lawyer acts in the best interests of his client. Tasked with finding a way to keep St. Louis as an NFL city, Blitz put forward a viable plan to build a stadium he sees as “a key to revitalizing the city of St. Louis even more than it’s already been revitalized.” He feels that way still.
“It’s never a good thing to lose a part of St. Louis,” Blitz said the day after the Rams’ announcement. “But I feel that St. Louis’ best days are ahead of it. With or without the Rams.”
‘You get what you work for’
It’s not as if planning football stadiums is all that Bob Blitz does. As one of the founding partners of the prominent St. Louis law firm Blitz, Bardgett & Deutsch, Blitz boasts a long string of courtroom victories that have dominated Missouri Lawyers Weekly’s Verdicts & Settlements rankings for years. This year was no exception: He and several fellow Blitz Bardgett lawyers are being honored for one of the year’s top defense verdicts, a judgment upholding amendments to the will of St. Louis real estate businessman Robert Kaplan that left tens of millions of dollars in assets to his widow.
Working on the stadium deal, Blitz said, was “way outside the legal box.” Still, it’s easy to see why Gov. Jay Nixon tapped him in November 2014 for the stadium task force. Blitz was part of the legal team that helped bring the Rams to St. Louis from Los Angeles in 1995, and he is the lawyer for the Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority, which operates the Edward Jones Dome where the Rams played.
Blitz’s interest in sports is lifelong and dovetails with his love of St. Louis. He grew up in a “working man’s area” on the eastern edge of University City. His father, Morris Blitz, was an acclaimed wrestling coach who later served as superintendent of the Normandy School District.
“Our dinner table talk was sports, education, and how to achieve and succeed in those areas,” Blitz said. That upbringing made an impression on him.
“We were brought up that you don’t get what you hope for or what you wish for or what you want,” he said. “You get what you work for.”
Blitz estimates that he’s spent 1,000 to 1,500 hours on the stadium effort, on top of his regular legal practice.
“I have not billed for one cent of my time, but it has taken a large amount of my time,” he said. (Blitz’s firm, however, did bill about $900,000 for other lawyers’ efforts.)
Those who know Blitz speak about his tremendous work ethic.
“Bob doesn’t measure days of work the way the rest of us do,” said James Deutsch, one of the name partners at the firm, who has been practicing with Blitz since 1993. “He works until the work is done. That sometimes makes it difficult to confine himself to 24 hour days.”
Catherine Hanaway, a litigator at Husch Blackwell who faced off against Blitz during the Kaplan case, knew her opponent only by reputation until then.
“His trial skills were equal to his reputation,” she said. Although her clients, Robert Kaplan’s adult children, ultimately lost on most of the important areas of the case, Hanaway was quick to praise Blitz and the other trial lawyers.
“I think it’s the hallmark of a great leader, to recruit the very best people and not be threatened by them,” she said.
Blitz, Deutsch and the late Supreme Court Judge Jack Bardgett formed Blitz, Bardgett & Deutsch in 2000. Deutsch, who is based in Jefferson City and had a long career in state government, notes that his partner “seems to know everybody.” That has helped the firm recruit clients; it also helps explain how Blitz came to sit on the stadium task force.
“When the governor asks you, you don’t say no,” Deutsch said.
Getting to ‘first tier’
Blitz, along with task force co-chairman David Peacock, a former president of Anheuser-Busch, proposed an outdoor stadium to be built on the city’s north riverfront. Blitz said the effort led him to contemplate areas of football arenas he’s never thought about, from the amount of leg room to the possibilities for advertising. But mostly, it came down to finding the $1.1 billion needed for the project.
The plan submitted at the end of last year called for public funding, though how significant that share was depended on which side you asked. The NFL said it was being asked to pay too much; Rams’ ownership complained about their portion as well, saying the team moved to St. Louis only because its lease promised a “first tier” stadium supported entirely by the public. In an interview with the L.A. Times after the move was announced, Rams owner Stan Kroenke said the decision was “bittersweet” but added that “you’re not going to sit there and be a victim.”
Some in St. Louis and elsewhere in the state, meanwhile, were enraged that there would be no vote on publicly financing the stadium. In a lawsuit led by Blitz last year, the sports authority sued to invalidate a 2002 city ordinance purporting to require such a vote. In August, St. Louis Circuit Judge Thomas Frawley agreed that the ordinance was too vague to be enforced. A city aldermanic committee in December likewise shot down an effort to require a vote.
Even as the NFL owners met to decide if the Rams could move, a Missouri Senate committee heard a bill requiring either voters or lawmakers to approve extending or issuing new bonds for the stadium.
Supporters said there wasn’t time to seek public approval for the project and still meet the NFL’s deadlines.
“Everybody is entitled to express their views,” Blitz said. “Any time you have a big project or a big case you’re going to find those who are opposed to it. And that’s their right.”
Frawley’s ruling remains on appeal. John Ammann, supervisor of Saint Louis University’s civil litigation clinic (and, for reasons unrelated to the stadium issue, a recipient of one of this year’s Influential Appellate Advocate awards from Missouri Lawyers Weekly), represented St. Louis residents who tried unsuccessfully to intervene in the lawsuit.
Ammann praised Blitz’s professionalism throughout the proceedings but says the argument that there was no time for a vote is “baloney.” City leaders could have put it to a vote last year, he said, and perhaps public support would have enticed the team to stay.
“We would have had closure in June from the voters, either yes or no,” Ammann said.
‘A stubborn bunch’
It remains to be seen what happens next. The product of Blitz’s long year of toil remains achievable and could still grace the banks of the Mississippi if another team were to show interest — and if St. Louis leaders decide they remain interested in hosting a team.
“We would have to have a real commitment, not just ‘if you do this, we may talk about that,’” Blitz said. “We’ve already given them a plan that’s viable.”
It was always a possibility, after all, that the Rams might leave no matter what the stadium task force crafted. Prior to the NFL owners’ vote, Deutsch, Blitz’s law partner, predicted that no matter what happened his partner, his firm and the stadium’s backers still had plenty of work left to do.
“It’s a stubborn bunch that probably aren’t going to be satisfied with an answer that isn’t in the interest of St. Louis,” he said.