When Steve Johnson explains why St. Louis needs a new private-sector economic development organization, he reads a dictionary definition of “alliance.”
The word, which appears in the name of the St. Louis Regional Economic Development Alliance, describes an association formed for mutual benefit. Johnson, who will be the alliance’s first chief executive beginning next month, says it’s something St. Louis has needed for some time.
“If we can hammer home the concept of mutual benefit, we can do much more than we could do individually,” Johnson said. He says the alliance will work for the mutual benefit of the three business groups that founded it — the St. Louis Regional Chamber, Regional Business Council and Civic Progress — and of the many cities and counties in the region that have their own economic development staffs.
The new organization will rebuild and expand the economic development function of the Regional Chamber, which suffered in recent years from leadership turmoil and staff departures. The alliance will be a subsidiary of the Chamber but will have its own staff, budget and 15-member board.
The budget will be $4 million a year, and corporate donors have made a three-year commitment.
St. Louis business leaders began studying economic development last summer. “Leadership in the private sector realized that, with economic growth in St. Louis being what it is, we can’t keep doing things the same way,” said Tom Minogue, chairman of the Regional Chamber and of law firm Thompson Coburn.
Between 2015 and 2017, according to the U.S. Commerce Department, metro St. Louis’ inflation-adjusted economic output grew just 0.5 percent a year, compared with 2.3 percent for the nation as a whole.
Suzanne Sitherwood, CEO of gas utility Spire, will chair the alliance board. Accelerating the growth rate, she acknowledged, will benefit her business and most others in the region.
“States and regional organizations that are really successful around economic development have a laser focus and know how to be their region’s front door to the world,” Sitherwood said. “Those regions grow in an exponential way.”
As that front door, the alliance will feed information to site-selection consultants and pitch the region to companies that are looking to expand. When it finds a live prospect, it will see which parts of the region have suitable sites and then make a referral to those cities or counties.
Madison County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler is looking forward to working with the new group. “The whole idea is to communicate the advantages and positive things we have in the St. Louis area,” he said. “It’s important that we work together regionally and speak well of each other.”
Tom Chulick, who became the Regional Chamber’s permanent CEO last week after serving in an interim role for nearly a year, says his organization studied successful regions including Minneapolis and Nashville and determined that the private sector should lead a regional effort.
“The business community has to be intentionally and specifically engaged in business recruitment,” he said.
Johnson and his new organization will try to fill a tall order. Turning around a slow-growing metro economy will take years, and intraregional rivalries may cause frictions, but a mutual-benefit alliance looks like the right approach.
St. Louis has treated economic development as an individual sport for too long, with various communities jostling and elbowing one another in the race for jobs and investment. It’s time to see what we can accomplish by making it a team sport instead.
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