Confluence Academies purchases St. Louis Library building, eyes Grand Center acquisition

St. Louis charter school network Confluence Academies is working on a $20.3 million financing package to help it purchase the buildings that house two of its schools.

Last month, Confluence bought the downtown building that houses Confluence Preparatory Academy from a St. Louis Public Library affiliate for $8.8 million. Confluence has leased the building at 310 North 15th Street from the library for years, and the lease included a purchase option, said the library’s chief operating officer Justin Struttmann.

Confluence Academies CEO Candice Carter-Oliver said the charter school network, which serves roughly 3,000 students, was committed to downtown and was “excited” about the purchase.

“It makes sense in terms of financial stability and planning,” she said. “It makes sense for us to own as opposed to leasing. … It’s part of a number of actions we have taken over the last few years to improve financial stability and continue our work in educating children.”

Still in the works is Confluence’s plan to purchase the buildings that house its Grand Center Arts Academy near North Grand Boulevard and Grandel Square, including the century-old Sun Theater.

Those buildings are owned by companies affiliated with developer Steve Smith and the Lawrence Group. Smith and the Lawrence Group undertook in 2013 an $11 million rehab of the Sun Theater and leases it to Confluence to provide Grand Center Arts Academy students with a venue for performances.

It also rehabbed the Beaux Arts building, constructed in 1928 and the former headquarters of Carter Carburetor, into 33 classrooms and 16 offices for Grand Center Arts Academy. The charter school has leased the building since 2011.

In addition to those buildings, Confluence is considering purchasing the 125-year-old Victorian House that formerly housed the Missouri Botanical Garden’s EarthWays Center and now is known as the Creative Arts Building. It’s also eyeing the parking lot to the west of the Sun Theater. All are owned by a company affiliated with the Lawrence Group and Steve Smith.

The proposed transaction was detailed in a report by the St. Louis Industrial Development Authority, which is considering issuing $16 million in bonds to finance the estimated $12.8 million purchase of the Grand Center buildings and refinance a portion of the Confluence’s acquisition from the library.

Peoples National Bank would provide a bridge loan and the Federal Home Loan Bank could guarantee the financing, according to the IDA report.

The St. Louis IDA gave preliminary approval to the deal Thursday but will need to sign off on a final package. The taxable bonds would be publicly sold and not put any risk on the city.

Carter-Oliver said that although it was not clear yet when the deal would close, she was “pleased to see the progress we’ve made.”

“It’s a very complex deal,” she said. “We’re still working through that and having conversations.”

Though it had shared governance, Grand Center Arts Academy officially merged last year with the Confluence network.

It cited high debt to Confluence, and school officials said the move erased the debt to the charter school network.

After those past financial challenges at Grand Center Arts Academy, Carter-Oliver said the purchase of its buildings would further help the charter school network.

“This all helps Grand Center,” she said. “This allows us to be able to be more financially stable.”