Steve Johnson has some thoughts about how St. Louis is perceived by business decision makers, but he wants to know for sure.
That’s why one of the first things he plans to do as head of the new St. Louis Regional Economic Development Alliance is to commission a survey of site selection consultants and executives who make corporate location decisions.
Johnson’s hunch is that his intended audience simply doesn’t know much about St. Louis. “We all think everybody has got this negative opinion of us, but what’s more concerning is that they don’t have an opinion,” he said this week. “It’s a blank slate.”
The Alliance is a private-sector-led effort to rebuild the area’s business-attraction efforts. It’s taking over functions that were formerly part of the St. Louis Regional Chamber, but that had been de-emphasized as the Chamber suffered from leadership turmoil and staff turnover.
Johnson, a former Chamber executive who most recently had been running the Missouri Partnership, started March 1 as Alliance CEO. Six weeks into the job, he sat down to discuss plans for the new organization.
Some of the initial tasks are internal — setting strategic goals, hiring more staff and reorganizing the Alliance’s space within the Chamber’s downtown office — but Johnson wants to delve into the branding study quickly.
The pipeline of potential business expansion deals “is solid but it’s not where it needs to be,” he said. “We need to be out there telling the St. Louis story.”
When he talks to national consultants about the region, responses range from “attractive market with competitive costs” to “I’ve never had a client look at St. Louis.”
Overcoming the latter may take a while, but Johnson thinks the Alliance can quickly make a difference when St. Louis is already on a company’s radar. Consultants typically use data on costs, worker availability and other factors to narrow a search to perhaps three or four cities.
“If we do our job better than the competition, once we get down to those finalists, we will win more than our share,” Johnson vows.
The Alliance was created by three business organizations: the Regional Chamber, Regional Business Council and Civic Progress. Those ties can be an advantage.
When one potential expansion candidate, an out-of-town technology company, had questions about the local business climate, Johnson contacted Alliance board members. “In a matter of days, we pulled together a meaningful group of folks for them and they had a candid conversation,” he said.
Johnson stayed out of the room. The client was far more interested in hearing from business peers than from him, a paid promoter.
The Alliance starts with a staff of seven people, and Johnson wants to double that within a year. Its budget of about $4 million a year is “a good amount to get us started,” he says. “It’s very competitive.”
The Alliance’s mandate is to provide a single message about the region and generate leads for the public-sector agencies that promote cities and counties within the metro area.
That unified message has been missing for the last couple of years, and there’s been a sense that local entities were sometimes competing with each other rather than cooperating.
Johnson said he expects all the region’s economic development agencies to agree on shared principles, including sensitive subjects such as how to proceed if a company is thinking about moving from one part of the area to another.
“We’ll put down on paper our commitment to each other, to say this is how we work together,” he explained. “It’s not a substitute for trust, but it does provide some guardrails.”