City bragging rights at stake


Belgian brewer's play for Anheuser-Busch perturbs St. Lousians

June 13, 2008|By Jeremiah McWilliams and Matthew Hathaway | Jeremiah McWilliams and Matthew Hathaway,St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS - On any given weekend, St. Louisans can catch a baseball game at Busch Stadium; see beer of the same name being brewed and bottled; and quaff more complimentary cups of the brew in the courtyard of the Grant's Farm's "Bauernhof."

They can brunch at Bevo Mill, a South Side whimsy built by Anheuser-Busch on the eve of Prohibition to make saloon-going seem more respectable. Then they can work off that feast on a hike through the 7,000-acre August A. Busch Memorial Conservation Area in St. Charles County.

"The Busches built an empire here, and they did it their way," said Sue Luepker, who with her husband, Marty, owns Al Smith's Feasting Fox, originally called Busch's Inn when it was built by the brewer. Part restaurant and part museum of St. Louis brewing history, the place takes part of its name from the jovial gargoyles that guard the company's Soulard brewery.

But those comical foxes can't scare off the pigeons, let alone a hungry rival circling One Busch Place. InBev NV/SA of Leuven, Belgium, the world's biggest brewer, bid $46.3 billion Wednesday for Anheuser-Busch Cos., the first step of a long-rumored deal that would end the company's 156-year run of independence and shake one of St. Louis' oldest pillars of stability.

"Here we go again," said Clarence Harmon, who was St. Louis mayor in 2001 when American Airlines gobbled Trans World Airlines.

Losing the brewer's headquarters wouldn't be economically devastating for the region as long as a new owner kept the local brewery open, Harmon said. But it would be a massive blow to the city's prestige, he said. "Having the company here, it's like bragging rights."

The company's sheer brawn conveys bragging rights. Anheuser-Busch has about 6,000 employees in the St. Louis area, a Missouri payroll of $518 million and pays more than $37 million in state and local taxes and fees.

Anheuser-Busch's sales rank third-highest among area public companies; its profits are fatter than all but one other area company: Emerson Electric Co.

Losing that economic heft would set St. Louis back significanty, said Stuart Greenbaum, former dean of Washington University's Olin Business School.

"It's economic power, it's jobs, it's the ability to support amenities, it's the ability to stage national and international events," Greenbaum said. "The ability to be a Chicago instead of a Dubuque is what's at stake here."

But dry data can't trace Anheuser-Busch's deep imprint on St. Louis' personality and identity. Budweiser radio commercials end with an announcer sounding off "St. Louis, Missouri" - a reminder that the city is the home of the world's best-selling beer. Anheuser-Busch has made its Clydesdales, such as those lodged in the brewery's stables, into advertising icons. The brewery's guided tours draw about 350,000 visitors each year.

"It's a whole bunch of symbolism that's important to the community," said Don Phares, professor emeritus of economics and public policy at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. "If that were to change, I think it would be a substantial loss to the community."

Other than beer, sports is the brewer's broadest link to the St. Louis area.

In 1953, then-Cardinals owner Fred Saigh Jr., convicted of tax evasion and engulfed in legal problems, was forced to sell the team. After rejecting more lucrative offers from groups in Houston and Milwaukee, Saigh sold the club to August A. "Gussie" Busch Jr. for $3.75 million in April 1953.

The brewery boss also purchased Sportsman's Park from St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck, who would move his team to Baltimore at the end of the 1953 season.

There never has been any other company in town that was known just by its type of business - nothing else like 'the Brewery,'" said Tom Schlafly, a lawyer and co-founder of St. Louis Brewery Inc. "No one ever called May 'the Department Store Company.' It's almost like they're royalty."

And what royalty wants, royalty often gets. Harmon said that, when he was mayor, rumors bubbled that Anheuser-Busch was considering moving its headquarters from St. Louis to Florida. Harmon rushed to meet with August A. Busch III, who was upset about the slow pace of development just south of downtown, especially at the site of the former Darst-Webbe housing towers.

Converting the abandoned projects into the well-manicured King Louis Square apartments became a top priority, and Busch III seemed placated. Harmon doesn't know if there was any kernel of truth to the relocation rumors, but they subsided, and Anheuser-Busch remained.

Now, you can hear it on the street and sense it in people's questions on blogs: This city fears the day when the King of Beers may be toppled.

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