Editorial: Unify St. Louis and stop the 'slow drain' of economic power

2014-02-26T06:00:00Z 2014-04-30T11:03:00Z Editorial: Unify St. Louis and stop the 'slow drain' of economic powerBy the Editorial Board stltoday.com

It is perhaps typical of the long, divisive history of St. Louis that there are not one, not two, but three separate groups working in some fashion to undo the region’s “Great Divorce” of 1876.

They all have unifying names — Better Together, UnifySTL and STL-World Class City — with a common goal: In some fashion, merge St. Louis city and St. Louis County into one entity.

Even the opposition to the concept of unification is divided, with at least two groups forming: Stop the City-County Merger and Common Sense for St. Louis.

It is telling that groups on both sides of this divisive debate are themselves unifying. The World Class City folks have linked up with the Unify folks. The anti-merger group and common sense group have become one.

Unification, it seems, has value.

A HOUSE DIVIDED

The now-infamous effort to split the city of St. Louis from its then-rural county already was simmering when Abraham Lincoln, then a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, told a gathering of his party loyalists that for America to survive, it had to come together on the issue of slavery.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Lincoln told the Republican state convention in Illinois in 1858. He was railing against a nation divided by slave state and free. The house, he said, “will become all one thing, or all the other.”

Lincoln knew his Bible. The “house divided” metaphor comes from the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus warns that “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation.”

For several decades now, that has been the story of St. Louis.

The city’s population has fallen from about 856,000 in 1950 to its 2011 level of about 318,000. Much of that population is still in the region, in the suburbs, but the shift in location helped reduce economic productivity. In recent decades, economic growth has been limited at best — a moribund 1.2 percent in 2011. In some cases, the city’s loss has been the suburbs’ gain, but not by much.

Vast parts of both the northern half of the city and some northern parts of the county are nearly desolate. At least in part, that’s because of public policies that for decades protected the white and the affluent.

Unifying the city and the county won’t fix that. It won’t be a panacea that solves decades of urban decay.

But it is the beginning of a power shift that could reverse a status quo that establishes today’s St. Louis reality. Those with means survive, even prosper. Those without shrivel, even die.

In part, unification is about investing our entire region in the proposition that a greater St. Louis is possible only if its core regains vitality.

STOPPING THE SLOW DRAIN

In 1992, economist Richard Voith, then with the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, studied the relationship between suburbs and urban cores and concluded that blight in an inner city can have a direct economic effect on its suburbs.

“Central city decline is likely to be a long-run, slow drain on the economic and social vitality of the region,” Mr. Voith wrote.

This is the impetus behind the movement to unify the St. Louis region, in whatever form it might take. This is the reason why we embarked on this A Greater St. Louis series. We believe a united region holds greater promise than one divided by arbitrary lines that never would have been drawn if not for legislative short-sightedness more than a century ago. Unification improves the prospects that the region will truly focus on its most important economic development tool: better education outcomes for all of its citizens. Unification, we believe, can put a stopper in the slow drain of our region’s economic power.

The evidence is not totally persuasive that when cities and counties merge, the larger, unified governments reverse all negative economic trend lines. Studies of Indianapolis, Louisville, Nashville and smaller consolidations are inconclusive.

While it would seem obvious that St. Louis doesn’t need 44 fire chiefs, for instance, and that consolidation would create efficiency, the experience of other cities doesn’t necessarily back that up. Political realities are tough to overcome.

This is where the discussions, led by whichever unification movement you subscribe to, are so important. For some, unification is about perception.

“Perception is reality. Change the perception, change the reality,” wrote Charles Schmitz in an opinion piece in the Post-Dispatch in 2010 that helped spur the unify movement. Mr. Schmitz, the dean emeritus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis School of Education, founded the STL-World Class City group. “Being a Top 10 City changes the world’s perception of who we are and will bring opportunities our way that we could only have dreamed about.”

A combined city and county would turn St. Louis from the 58th-largest city in the nation to the 8th-largest. Crime stats would go from albatross to advantage.

For others, unification is about righting past wrongs, including development policies that destined much of north St. Louis to desolation.

For some, the movement is about economic development. For certain leaders, both for and against, it’s a fight over power.

THE SNOW PLOW INDEX

In the end, the prospects for unification might come down to simple things like plowing snow.

If you live in a West County suburb that cleared streets with little problem during the January polar vortex weather event, but you commute to downtown and found the streets there impassable, then you might look askew at talks of unification, wondering, what’s in it for me?

The question is better framed this way:

• What does a St. Louis that doesn’t address its urban core look like in 10 or 20 or 100 years?

• What good are clean streets in a suburban enclave if the lack of jobs and good schools dooms a region’s economic engine?

• What has more than a century of division wrought for St. Louis?

If this nascent unification movement in St. Louis is to succeed when all the ones before it failed, it will have to get beyond the personalities, beyond the racial politics, beyond the historic parochial battles that doom so many good ideas to failure.

That won’t be easy. Reconciliation rarely is.

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