When Dick Fleming arrived in 1994 to run St. Louis' economic development effort, he found a landscape that looked more tribal than regional.
Various city and suburban agencies made their own pitches to employers wanting to move or expand — in competition rather than cooperation. Some counties defined success by how many businesses they could lure from the city of St. Louis.
"It was really a free-for-all environment," recalls Fleming, who was hired as president of the Regional Chamber and Growth Association after holding a similar job in Denver. He's still here, and the RCGA recently announced the fourth five-year plan undertaken during Fleming's tenure.
Fifteen years after that first plan, St. Louis still lags the nation in job growth. The area also gets low marks for its inability to nurture entrepreneurial, fast-growing companies. During that time, though, we have at least learned to present ourselves as a region rather than a collection of warring clans.
In a global economy, where the decision on where to situate a new facility may be made in Europe or Asia, individual cities and counties don't have the clout to compete, says Ned Hill, dean of the Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University. "You need the brand of the region," he says.
Even though our hundreds of local governments compete in many dysfunctional ways — such as using tax incentives to move big-box stores from one suburb to another — Hill says St. Louis, more often than not, presents a united front to the outside world. If a business from the East Coast wants to expand here, it can get impartial information about various sites from the RCGA's economic development staff.
In some metro areas, that same business would have to deal directly with competing cities and counties, with each of them bad-mouthing the others. Such an approach doesn't work, Hill says: "What is usually true with large amounts of fragmentation is you start getting jurisdictions looking out for their own, and they don't do a good job of sharing leads."
That could describe how St. Louis worked until the early 1990s. As part of the RCGA's first regional plan, which launched in 1995, Fleming made the various cities and counties agree to a no-raiding pledge.
They had to stop recruiting companies on one another's turf. They can't publicly disparage any part of the St. Louis area. If approached by a company from within the metro area, they must notify the company's current city or county to see if its needs can be met there.
The major counties in the region all signed on to the plan, as did the city of St. Louis. The rules are usually honored, though intra-regional tensions still arise.
During the decade and a half that the region's economic developers have strived to cooperate rather than compete, they've produced some successes. In the 1990s, when MasterCard outgrew its offices in St. Louis County, the region rallied around a site in O'Fallon, Mo., which won out in a competition with Dallas.
Regional officials concede, however, that the region still fails at times to present a unified front. A few St. Louis county companies have been recruited to nearby jurisdictions, despite the no-raiding pledge, said Denny Coleman, president of the county's Economic Council.
"That's the piece of economic development that's a full-contact sport," says Coleman, who instituted his own no-raiding policy when he joined the Economic Council in 1990. The biggest current tensions involve competing airports.
On the list of contributors to the RCGA's new economic development campaign, St. Clair County is notably absent. Board Chairman Mark Kern has criticized the RCGA's efforts to attract Chinese cargo airlines to Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. He says the cargo-hub idea originated at MidAmerica Airport, which is in St. Clair County, and was stolen by St. Louis officials eager to build traffic at Lambert.
Fleming says that the chamber would welcome Kern back any time and that the airport dispute hasn't impaired cooperation with St. Clair County on business recruitment projects.
Danny Ludeman, chief executive of Wells Fargo Advisors and chairman of the RCGA's economic development board, downplays the tension. "There are always going to be issues come up that people may not agree on, but I've been impressed with the spirit of collaboration here," he says.
Ludeman, who moved here in 2007 from Richmond, Va., says he has experienced "more discussion and talk on economic issues than I saw in Richmond or other cities I've been associated with."
Healthy communication, however, isn't an end in itself. No matter how much our regional leaders talk with one another, they have to figure out a way to generate jobs.
A new wrinkle in the latest economic plan aims to accomplish that. In key sectors such as health care and financial services, industry councils will advise the RCGA staff about which firms might be expanding and what needs they might have. In a sense, it brings more business leaders into the collaborative structure that's already set up for political leaders and their economic development aides.
The new plan also establishes an aggressive goal. Within a decade, the RCGA pledges that the region will be above average on various economic measures, including job growth.
It's certainly not a goal we can reach by competing among ourselves. To get there, the region's leaders will have to go beyond marketing and work together on a laundry list of tough issues, including infrasructure, education and the environment. And, of course, airports.