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‘Are we a community on the rise?’ Next St. Louis mayor will set direction for region’s economy

‘Are we a community on the rise?’ Next St. Louis mayor will set direction for region’s economy

From the New Directions: Exploring the issues in the St. Louis City mayoral race series
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ST. LOUIS — Economic development in St. Louis is at a crossroads.

The city’s powerful development chief is retiring. The central corridor is finally a self-sustaining growth engine. City leaders want to refocus development on the most impoverished neighborhoods. And the region’s business and civic community has a reinvigorated interest in its urban core.

This spring, St. Louis voters will pick a new mayor, who will have a unique opportunity to shape the future growth of the city — and by extension, the region.

“This is a major, major inflection point,” said Jason Hall, CEO of the region’s new civic leadership group, Greater St. Louis Inc.

“Are we a community on the rise or a community in decline?”

Four candidates are running for mayor. Three politicians and a businessman. All four agree that one of the next mayor’s biggest jobs is to be the city’s cheerleader in chief and convince residents and business leaders throughout the region that metro St. Louis’ fate is tied to the health of the city.

“So goes St. Louis, so goes the region,” said city Aldermanic President Lewis Reed.

St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones said the city should be “a willing partner” with the business community and build better relationships with area counties. “We have to develop a mindset that our destinies are linked and shared,” she said.

Public-private partnerships helped revitalize Detroit, said Alderman Cara Spencer, 20th Ward. Business leaders here have already invested hundreds of millions of dollars revamping the Gateway Mall, from the Arch grounds to the under-construction Major League Soccer stadium. She hopes they can organize now around such shared regional goals as strengthening the rest of the city.

“We have a business community that wants to invest,” Spencer said. “It’s the mayor’s job to set the table to convene those stakeholders in a constructive manner.”

The lone Republican candidate, Andrew Jones, a vice president at Southwestern Electric Cooperative, said the city needs to “take the reins” of regional leadership.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “St. Louis hasn’t been good about taking that mantle and leading the way.”

The four candidates will square off March 2 in a first-round primary, which will narrow the field to two. The April 6 general election will determine the city’s 47th mayor.

The winner will have an unusually large opportunity to influence economic development.

Greater St. Louis, created by the recent merger of top business groups Civic Progress and the St. Louis Regional Chamber, has said it will focus on the city as a key to its jobs strategy.

The new mayor will also get to pick a new chief for the city’s development arm: Its longtime head, Otis Williams, 73, is retiring in April when Mayor Lyda Krewson, who is not running for reelection, leaves office.

At the same time, the new mayor will start even as Williams’ agency, St. Louis Development Corp., has outlined its own new strategy:

To stop focusing so much on the central corridor, where over hundreds of millions of dollars in projects are underway or are just finishing — and to start rebuilding disinvested neighborhoods one by one.

The new plan

Two of the four mayoral candidates applauded SLDC’s new direction, mapped out in the 400-page “Equitable Economic Development” plan.

“I really like the shift to focusing on neighborhood development,” said Spencer. Investment in the Gravois Park and Dutchtown neighborhoods she represents has increased in recent years as she and other neighborhood groups focused resources there, she said. “I know the model works, and I’m excited to take it citywide.”

Reed pointed out that he sponsored the 2018 bill that spurred SLDC to hire a consultant to write the plan.

“I think it’s absolutely essential that whoever the next mayor is embraces it fully,” Reed said.

Tishaura Jones, though, said the city and region have plenty of plans and that “people deserve action.”

“We spent $800,000 for them to tell us what we already knew, which was we needed to stop developing in areas that are already built up, and needed to go north and south and make it a neighborhood approach,” Jones said. “While I appreciate all of the hard work that went into the report, I don’t think it told us anything new.”

Andrew Jones said he wasn’t yet sold on the new framework. While he said a comprehensive plan is essential, he said he wants to do an “analysis of the analysis” before signing off on it as the city’s roadmap.

“I don’t know if it leads us down the yellow-brick road or not,” he said.

To him, the biggest issue is violent crime. Lower the homicide rate, and businesses will come, he said.

“When you change the perception of the city of St. Louis, people will look into it,” Jones said.

Beyond crime, the city should focus on touting job-training efforts at institutions like Ranken Technical College and St. Louis Community College, he said. “We don’t have a jobs problem, we have a personnel problem.”

Spencer said city leaders need to concentrate resources on a few high-need neighborhoods outside of the central corridor while also working to stabilize downtown, which has been hammered by a pandemic that has kept thousands of white collar office workers home and threatens to fundamentally change the nature of employment districts.

“We can’t have a successful region without a successful downtown,” she said. “That is going to have to be a key strategy of stabilizing the city.”

Reed would like to see the city begin planning for a broadband line through north St. Louis that will help attract businesses and can also be used to bridge the “digital divide” by offering free Wi-Fi for lower income families. The city can also do a better job leveraging its strong transportation infrastructure to grow trade and logistics industries, which Reed said offer more entry-level opportunities and should be more insulated from a shift toward remote work.

“A lot of those jobs are jobs that we can quickly and easily train a workforce up,” he said.

Now that the Biden administration is in power and the prospect of winning transit and infrastructure dollars from Washington is real, Tishaura Jones said the city needs to be ready to act on the north-south MetroLink line. The project, which called for a new line running into north St. Louis County south through the city into south St. Louis County, was much discussed five years ago. It faded from public discourse after Republicans took control of the federal government in 2017 and the chance of matching federal funding diminished. Former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger also was skeptical of the route.

“Now that we have a willing partner in St. Louis County, I think it’s time for a new revisit of that project,” Treasurer Jones said.

Paying for redevelopment

None of SLDC’s budget now comes from general revenue. It relies instead on fees from development incentives, tax credits and federal grants.

SLDC leaders say more staffing — likely paid for via general revenue — would better equip the agency to assemble sites, recruit developers and spur redevelopment in rough neighborhoods.

It’s something Spencer has brought up before. One of SLDC’s key functions is vetting and negotiating tax abatement and other incentive requests from developers. Because the fees from those projects largely fund the agency, a perverse incentive exists when SLDC is negotiating with developers, Spencer said. She’d like to see general revenue fund a portion of the agency’s budget so it’s not too beholden to development fees.

“I have been calling for a revisioning of how we fund SLDC for years,” Spencer said. “The current structure where SLDC is funded exclusively from developer fees is problematic.”

Reed, too, supports finding general revenue to help SLDC implement its new plan. “That’s money well spent,” he said.

Tishaura Jones said the city needs to review SLDC’s budget first.

“If we want any sort of transformational radical change, everything has to be on the table, everybody’s budget has to be scrutinized with a fine-tooth comb,” Jones said. “If they have revenue to support 60 (staff), then it’s possible there’s room within their existing budget depending on how the staff is deployed.”

Andrew Jones said he wants SLDC, which is currently a quasi-governmental agency with its own board made up largely of mayoral appointees, to become a true city agency under the mayor.

“A quasi relationship is not the relationship that I want,” he said.

Regional role

Still, the four candidates agreed that the next mayor must redefine the city’s narrative.

Reed, for instance, wants to better champion St. Louis schools, in the hopes of attracting new residents.

“Part of what the mayor has to do is redefine that whole thing,” Reed said.

Tishaura Jones said she has known Hall, the new Greater St. Louis CEO, for years and looks forward to working on the group’s regional “2030 Jobs Plan.”

“There are a lot of things in that report that I think, if implemented, can be game-changers for the region, especially in workforce development and entrepreneurship,” she said.

The city needs to do a better job building relationships with East St. Louis, St. Clair and Madison counties in Illinois as well as with St. Louis County, she said.

Spencer called Greater St. Louis “an incredible opportunity to organize the business community.” She said she’s “very hopeful” about Hall’s leadership and the opportunity to attract further support from the corporate community.

Andrew Jones said the city needs to step up.

“St. Louis,” he said, “should be the hub for the region.”

The candidates on economic development

Topic Andrew Jones Tishaura Jones Lewis Reed Cara Spencer
Value of new economic study? More study and analysis needed Not much new learned Essential that new mayor follows Good roadmap for neighborhood development
Fund SLDC with general revenue? Bring office under city control Need to analyze budget first Supportive of additional funding Revenue structure based on feeds is problematic
Regional role? St. Louis needs to step up as regional leader Build stronger relationships with Metro East, St. Louis County Change narrative of citu "Set the table" to convene civic, business leaders
Big idea? Promote job training Revisit north-south MetroLink line Build new broadband infrastructure in north St. Louis Focus on a few hihg-need neighborhoods while also stabilizing downtown
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