ST. LOUIS — Four years ago, houses still dotted the streets near Cass and Jefferson avenues, the remnants of a neighborhood that had seen residents leave and investment dwindle for decades.
On Tuesday, top federal intelligence and military officials gathered here, now a cleared 97-acre site, and promised to pour $1.7 billion into a new campus for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, hopeful that the 3,000-plus NGA jobs will draw even more private investment to the near north side.
It's the largest project north St. Louis has seen in generations, a massive federal campus in the heart of the region's urban core. When it opens in 2025, it will serve as the new western headquarters for a high-tech intelligence agency that has quietly worked on the south Mississippi Riverfront for decades.
Intelligence officials see the opportunity for innovative design that allows them to better collaborate with the private sector, developing new ways to analyze mapping data.
Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire told the gathering that the new facility would be the first in the intelligence community with unclassified office space specifically designated for producing analysis based on unclassified imagery and intelligence.
"In these spaces we will increase the unclassified information and intelligence that we produce while reducing the amount of time that it takes to do it," Maguire said. "Furthermore, we are absolutely committed to sharing that intelligence, expanding our partnerships in the private sector, state and local governments and also with our partners and allies abroad."
State and local leaders see the opportunity to begin revitalizing neighborhoods north of downtown and to grow a strategic sector of the regional economy focused on geospatial data analysis.
Those high hopes were on full display as a parade of politicians made their way to the microphone Tuesday before ceremoniously turning the first shovel of dirt.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-University City, and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., were there. Even Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who has led the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, spoke in his capacity as chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
The ceremony marked a victory for the city on a project many saw as a long shot in 2014, when the NGA first said publicly it needed to find a new home for its 3,000 St. Louis employees — its largest presence outside Washington.
Blunt applauded the state for finding the money to assemble the land in north St. Louis; St. Clair County offered NGA flat open ground next to Scott Air Force Base. "We certainly wouldn't have wanted to be there today instead of here," Blunt said. "Congressman Clay and I might not have been invited to be there today."
St. Louis and the state invested in excess of $114 million to acquire and prepare the land in the St. Louis Place neighborhood — debt that will be repaid with state and local income taxes from NGA employees.
The project has been in the back of the mind of area officials for a decade. Blunt mentioned that, 10 years ago, he told former Mayor Francis Slay, whose administration won the 2016 commitment from NGA to stay in the city, that the NGA would be looking for a new facility soon.
Clay, long an advocate for the project, thanked city officials for their work assembling property. He was the only one to thank controversial developer Paul McKee "for having the vision to assemble the 97 acres needed to make this site viable and allow the city of St. Louis to complete this project."
McKee had assembled over half the site and responded to a blind request for proposals that later turned out to be the NGA. He had bought some property from the city's land bank, and to fully assemble the site, the city had to buy that property back from the developer and his lender the Bank of Washington, who wanted more than they had paid for it. The negotiations nearly derailed the project. And last year, after the city canceled McKee's development rights in the area, lawsuits against the city from the bank, represented by McKee's lawyers, almost threw a wrench into the whole NGA project.
But Clay also extended an olive branch to City Hall, thanking Krewson and the head of the city's economic development office, Otis Williams.
Krewson, too, made sure to note efforts Williams and his staff have put into assembling the NGA site and clearing and cleaning the land for the handoff to the federal government.
"Literally we would not be here today had they not done the work, the hard work, to deliver this site," she said.