Kitty Ratcliffe of Explore St. Louis to Retire Early Amid Controversy

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Kathleen (Kitty) Ratcliffe, President of Explore St. Louis, will retire on August 31, 2024, ending her tenure 10 months before her contract expires in June 2025. She dedicated 18 years to Explore St. Louis; however, her work has not been without criticism. Ratcliffe’s departure comes after the recent onslaught of intense scrutiny and challenges she and the organization are embroiled in, particularly concerning the contentious expansion of the downtown convention center, The America’s Center.

The downtown convention center expansion project, a key initiative under Ratcliffe’s leadership, has been plagued by budget overruns and delays since 2018. Originally anticipated to bring more growth to the city’s convention facilities, the expansion project has faced accusations of mismanagement and insufficient scales to make a substantial impact. Critics argue that the expansion project of $250 million has not positioned St. Louis favorably compared to other major cities that funded massive expansions, like Denver, Indianapolis, and Nashville. In terms of the current exhibit halls, meeting rooms, and ballrooms, The America’s Center still ranks nearly the same as it did in 2016.

Last month, it was revealed that despite Ratcliffe’s statement in 2022 to cut costs, the first phase of the expansion project increased its costs by $7 million due to overruns, exhausting nearly all contingency funds. This financial mismanagement was a significant factor in the recent calls for Ratcliffe’s resignation.

Staff morale and sales performance have also been points of controversy. A virtual meeting in early June, mistakenly left open to the public, revealed a board member’s call for Ratcliffe’s removal due to these ongoing issues. Additional reports highlighted that hotel room bookings, a critical performance measure for downtown, remained below pre-pandemic levels, unlike in other cities, which have seen a recovery in sales and tourism.

Among the reports of Ratcliffe’s upcoming departure, St. Louis County Councilman of the R-6th District, Ernie Trakas suggests a state audit of the expansion spending, deeming the situation as needing urgent rectification. The St. Louis City Council will hold a hearing on July 9 to question convention center officials about the expansion issues.

Explore St. Louis will soon begin the search for Ratcliffe’s successor. As the search process unfolds, the future leadership of Explore St. Louis will face the dual challenge of completing the troubled expansion project and restoring confidence in the region’s tourism and convention sectors.

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