To the people of St. Louis:

Apologies for the unsolicited advice from up the river, but you are in one tough spot, having to choose between shoveling lots of money into a new stadium or maybe losing your NFL team.

We just went through that, though our situations are very different. For one thing, your billionaire team owner appears much further along in moving the team to greater Los Angeles than ours ever did.

Another is that while our old stadium may also have been obsolete, and a national joke when the roof fell in, at least we didn't still owe $100 million on the mortgage like you all do.

So there you sit, hoping that a plan for a new $985 million stadium on the river there in St. Louis can keep the team. And it will take hundreds of millions of dollars in public financing on top of the $100 million you still owe on those bonds for the last NFL stadium.

Your governor already said what's really at stake here, by calling the whole stadium effort keeping St. Louis "an NFL city." It does nothing for your negotiating leverage with the team for him to say it's a critical matter of prestige, but at least he's being honest. Building a stadium sure won't be about savvy public investment.

That's why it may be a good idea to just skip ordering up an economic analysis justifying a new stadium, even though consultants work for money and it's possible to actually get one to do it.

Maybe you can look up a good economic paper published a few years ago there in your town, at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. It did ask the right question, of whether professional sports stadiums are good public investments for cities.

"The short answer to this question is 'no,' " the author concluded. "When studying this issue, almost all economists and development specialists (at least those who work independently and not for a chamber of commerce or similar organization) conclude that the rate of return a city or metropolitan area receives for its investment is generally below that of alternative projects."

But keeping an NFL team isn't just a worry for your governor, and it's impressive how your volunteers from the business community have hustled. Trust me, that work is not as much fun as it may look.

My unpaid stadium finance consulting came several years ago when I was in another line of work, having been dragooned into joining a task force in St. Paul that planned to pitch for a new Minnesota Twins stadium.

I was an obscure rookie on a business All-Pro team, but at least I understood how modern stadium finance worked.

Once or twice every meeting it had to be explained, again, that if a dollar comes into the stadium, it's going to the team's owner. It won't be available to pay off any municipal bonds. Yes, that doesn't seem fair.

So that $130 million in personal seat licenses your volunteers listed in the "public" money column isn't going to fly. That money will come from the team's customers. The Rams and the NFL will insist on calling that private money.

In the end, about the only person still confused about that up here seemed to be our governor.

With so few tangible benefits, the real trick in stadium finance is to fairly divvy up the liabilities. So with what appears to be a $480 million hole to fill from the taxpayers' checkbooks, try to spread the pain as much as possible.

A broad consumption tax may be best, like a sales tax on drinks and food across the region. And please, make it a plan you know will work.

Somebody here cooked up a scheme to use digital pulltabs to raise the stadium subsidy money, an unproven strategy using unproven technology. You can guess how well that worked out.

But we did do many good things here, too.

In Minnesota, the deal was for the taxpayers to come up with $498 million of the construction cost, vs. $477 million for "private" contributions. Now that construction costs have climbed, it's the team paying for those additional costs

If you can, try to make it a true public place. The high schoolers up here will get our stadium almost as many days as the Vikings will have it.

We also have an agreement that gets money from the Vikings every year for capital improvements and doesn't create an open-ended financial commitment for the public.

That's what you want to stay away from, signing up for big costs down the road to keep a stadium "state of the art." You agreed to a provision like that in 1995 when bringing the Rams from California, one big reason why you're in the mess you are in.

It's also why the commissioners of Hamilton County, Ohio, recently voted to spend about $7.5 million toward a new, $10 million electronic scoreboard at the home of the Cincinnati Bengals NFL team.

It's almost funny how that turned out to be a win for the taxpayer, because the county was actually obligated to pay for the whole thing. Hamilton County remains on the hook for things like "stadium self-cleaning machines" and a "holographic replay system" if 14 other stadiums in the league somehow acquire these enhancements. Not making that up.

Don't get talked into paying someday for a billionaire's holographic replay system.

With any luck, on opening day in a few years you can forget about the staggering cost of your new football palace, and who had to pay for at least half of it. Just enjoy a St. Louis Rams win.

And if a deal can't be reached without subsidies as far as the eye can see, then take a deep breath and go with the remaining, far-lower-cost option.

Best Buy sells a $119.99 Dynex TV. Even that modest investment will produce a startlingly clear picture of the first kickoff at the new home of the Los Angeles Rams.