ST. LOUIS — Greater St. Louis Inc., the new group merging the region’s traditional business and civic advocacy groups, faces a daunting challenge.
Uniting a region with a longstanding racial divide and plenty of political fragmentation behind common civic goals won’t be easy. Distrust of business and civic elites runs rampant these days. And local history makes residents perhaps even more suspicious.
But if there is a consensus, it is that St. Louis is losing ground to other Midwestern cities.
“We’ve got to up our game here,” said Andy Taylor, executive chairman of Enterprise Holdings and founding chair of Greater St. Louis Inc. “It’s very apparent that some of these other cities are ahead of us.”
Led by Jason Hall, former director of Missouri’s Department of Economic Development, Greater St. Louis Inc. has pledged to become more inclusive, allowing new, younger leaders and Black and brown voices who were excluded in the past to be part of a consensus-building body. Local leaders will be watching to see whether there is truly room for input beyond the voices of business executives who ran two of the groups being merged, the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Civic Progress.
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“A merger of organizations charged with promoting and growing our region could be significant by pooling resources and coordinating strategic planning,” St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said in a statement. “But for it to be effective, any consolidation must ensure that the historically underserved regions of our county are a priority when it comes to investment opportunities.”
The region’s two major business groups have lost clout in recent years.
The St. Louis Regional Chamber, long the voice of area business interests, suffered a leadership crisis when CEO Joe Reagan was ousted in early 2018. Employees were jumping ship, complaining of a hostile work environment, and the chamber was running a deficit.
Civic Progress, historically the club of big area CEOs who could write checks to get things done, also waned in influence. It lost CEOs who ran Anheuser Busch, Monsanto, AT&T and big banks to corporate mergers and moves.
At the same time, unrest in Ferguson in 2014 brought national attention to St. Louis, making it a poster child for racial division as the Black Lives Movement began.
The area’s major initiatives, such as airport privatization and the Better Together city-county merger, were backed by a small cadre of political operatives funded by libertarian-leaning Rex Sinquefield and seen as an attempt to ram through big changes without widespread community buy-in. They failed.
“Cracks get filled by people with narrow agendas,” Hall said in an interview last week. “You want to broaden the base of stakeholders.”
Whether Greater St. Louis can fill some of the leadership void and build consensus in a fractious region remains to be seen, but area leaders are hopeful. Many say that Hall’s and Taylor’s commitment to St. Louis can’t be questioned.
“I don’t know if it’s a good idea or not,” St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann, one of the area’s longest-serving political leaders, said of the new organization that combines five local civic groups. “But I know what we’re doing now isn’t working.”
Taylors step up
Taylor comes to the role as chair of Greater St. Louis Inc with a deep reservoir of local goodwill.
The Taylor family has long been among the most generous backers of cultural institutions such as the St. Louis Symphony, Missouri Botanical Garden and Forest Park. Enterprise founder Jack Taylor, Andy Taylor’s father, was said to have overseen more than $1 billion in gifts before his death in 2016.
One of the last big successful civic ventures, the redo of the Gateway Arch Grounds, got over $100 million in funding from the Taylor family. Carolyn Kindle Betz, Taylor’s niece and the head of Enterprise Holdings Foundation, is chair and president of the Gateway Arch Park Foundation.
She also leads the ownership group for the city’s new Major League Soccer franchise, which is building a stadium downtown — privately financed with far less public subsidy than other sports stadiums. The Taylors were also behind the recent rehab of Soldiers Memorial, a downtown museum in the middle of the Gateway Mall that needed a facelift.
The family’s focus on the central city is strategic. Greater St. Louis Inc. will absorb Downtown STL Inc., the key booster for the area that gives many visitors their first impression of St. Louis.
“For St. Louis to be as good as it possibly can be, you’re going to have to have a successful core, a successful prosperous core,” Taylor said last week.
Arch to Park
One of the employees who left the Chamber during Reagan’s tenure was Hall. He previously worked as a lawyer at Bryan Cave before joining Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration.
Backed by Taylor and John Dubinksy, who led Mercantile Bank and helped get the Cortex tech district off the ground, Hall became CEO of a new civic group, Arch to Park.
Formed as a limited liability company rather than a nonprofit, Arch to Park’s mission was nebulous at first. It didn’t have a website. The LLC structure kept its funders obscured. Though insiders knew Taylor was a key backer, only recently has the organization disclosed that he was in fact the chairman. Other supporters included Commerce Bancshares Foundation, the charitable arm of the bank led by the Kemper family. David Kemper headed Arch to Park’s real estate fund.
Arch to Park was initially described as a strategic real estate fund, and Taylor said it still oversees about $180 million meant to invest in riskier real estate ventures that can make a difference. For instance, Arch to Park helped acquire key parcels at the corner of Delmar Boulevard and Euclid Avenue as part of an $84 million plan by Kevin Bryant of Kingsway Development to pull the Central West End’s strength north of the city’s infamous Delmar Divide.
Arch to Park also began to take a more assertive role in civic affairs. The STLMade branding campaign to promote civic pride is just an extension of Arch to Park, according to STLMade’s website. Its billboards are prominent along area highways.
Leading the STLMade campaign was Lee Broughton, a former Enterprise marketing executive married to Andy Taylor’s daughter, Chrissy Taylor, who took over as Enterprise CEO this year.
“Jason, because of his political experience and his love for St. Louis, said, ‘You know what, there are a couple other things we can do here,’” Andy Taylor said of Arch to Park’s expanding role.
Beyond the STLMade campaign, Arch to Park began funding major planning initiatives, such as GeoFutures, a strategy for leveraging the region’s mapping and geospatial talent as part of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s new western headquarters being built north of downtown. And it helped fund a recently released strategic plan for downtown.
Greater St. Louis Inc.’s initial agenda will be guided by a region-wide strategic plan being led by economic development expert Bruce Katz of New Localism Advisors.
“I do have a bias toward community-engaged planning,” Hall said. “I just think we went for way too long without that kind of effort, which was not healthy.”
Attorney Jerry Schlichter, one of the founders of entrepreneurship support organization Arch Grants, said he’s confident the new group will have a strong entrepreneurship focus, given Hall’s background. Hall helped build up and still chairs Missouri Technology Corp., a state-backed startup funding organization.
“It’s a superb role for Jason, who’s demonstrated for years he’s a top caliber thinker and doer,” Schlichter said. “He understands the importance of growing new companies and new industries and doing it in a diverse and inclusive way.”
Greater St. Louis Inc. pledges to better unite the region behind what Hall said will be an “actual agenda.” Hall has roots in Illinois, having grown up in Granite City, which could lend itself to better collaboration between the two sides of the Mississippi River.
“I think it’s a very positive move and I’m in full support,” said St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern, who said he was kept informed of the process. “Getting all these organizations merged into one is a great idea.”
Hall was most recently in the public eye last year as an opponent of the Sinquefield-backed effort to privatize St. Louis Lambert International Airport. Privatization supporters said it had the potential to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for a cash-strapped city to make catalytic investments, but St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson pulled the plug late last year.
Enterprise could have seen big impacts on its rental car business at the airport, and St. Louis might have become a model for other U.S. airports, the bread and butter of the rental car industry. Hall has maintained that his opposition was to the lack of community consensus and that many business leaders were concerned about the initiative.
Those involved have moved on and welcome Greater St. Louis’ effort to unite the region.
“The deep fragmentation of the St. Louis region has been a hindrance for too long,” Krewson said in a statement. “It’s to our city’s and region’s collective benefit to have our renowned economic development partners come together to form one, unified group.”
Just last month, Sinquefield cut ties with the political organization he funded, Pelopidas, spurring the firm’s demise and the departure of the lobbyist who led it, Travis Brown.
“The creation of Greater St. Louis Inc. is a great first step in bringing the region together,” Sinquefield said in a statement.
The question will be whether Greater St. Louis truly unites its disparate parts. The last big economic development union, merging some city and county functions to form the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, hasn’t moved much beyond that. The city still has its own group, the St. Louis Development Corp., and former County Executive Steve Stenger’s attempts to make sure the Partnership was closely controlled by county government played a major role in his indictment.
“That’s the fear here, even if we bring all these organizations together we’re still in silos,” said one local civic and political insider.
Ehlmann is hopeful. As a Republican, he said he’d like the GOP-dominated legislature in Jefferson City to do more for the St. Louis region. The perception by some is that Kansas City always brought a more unified agenda to the state capital, Ehlmann said, giving it more success in accomplishing its priorities.
“Maybe it’d be a lot easier to do if we had one organization speaking for everyone,” he said.