CREVE COEUR • If St. Louis hopes to grow its economy in the 21st century, it's going to need more people like Carmen Jacob, Rao Chilakala, and the 75 researchers at the Danforth Plant Science Center who were born in other countries but live and work here.
That's the thrust of a new study issued Tuesday by economic development officials in St. Louis and St. Louis County, arguing that a big reason the region has fallen behind many other big cities is the strikingly low rate of immigration here.
About 126,000 St. Louisans, less than 5 percent of the region's population, were born overseas. That rate is four or five times less than most of the rest of the nation's 20 biggest metro areas, the study found.
Coupled with an aging population, that translates into lower growth, fewer skilled workers to fill jobs in high-growth industries, and a more sluggish economy, said Jack Strauss, an economics professor at St. Louis University who authored the study.
"We have the lowest share of immigrants of any top 20 city, and the second lowest growth rate," Strauss said. "That's not a coincidence."
Smaller Midwest cities such as St. Louis have had a particularly hard time attracting immigrants, who tend to be drawn to bigger metro areas and cities where there are already established ethnic populations.
While public debate often focuses on low-skilled, low-wage immigrants, most people who move from abroad to the U.S. tend to be highly educated and entrepreneurial — especially in places such as St. Louis that aren't traditional gateways, said Strauss and others at a panel talk on the topic Tuesday.
"You don't come to America to be jobless," said Strauss. "It's a sink-or-swim environment. So we tend to attract the smartest, most hardworking people."
The immigrant households in St. Louis earn, on average, $83,000 a year, 25 percent more than native-born households, Strauss' study found. Foreign-born residents are 44 percent more likely to have a college degree, and 60 percent more likely to start a business.
Places such as the Danforth Center, which hosted Tuesday's event, are part of the reason why.
The research center, along with the region's universities, hospitals and top-tier corporations, are magnets for highly skilled immigrants, said Anna Crosslin, president of the International Institute of St. Louis. About one-third of the employees at the Danforth Center come from overseas. Flags of their 22 home countries hang in the atrium.
"These scientists are essential to the research being done here," said the Danforth Center's president, James Carrington, who noted that some have gone on to start their own companies.
And it's not just in high science.
Carmen Jacob saw an opportunity 15 years ago, when she heard some big local companies say they had a hard time finding good information technology workers. So she launched NextGen, an IT staffing agency downtown. Now she provides workers on a contract basis to big companies such as AT&T, Ameren and Monsanto.
A native Guatemalan, Jacob came to St. Louis 24 years ago. She said there are challenges to breaking into a male-dominated industry. But, she's found, if you provide a good service, people will hire you.
"You have to hustle," she said.
For many newcomers, it helps to have a network. There have long been Bosnian and Hispanic chambers of commerce in St. Louis, and last year a new Asian-American chamber launched. The International Institute of St. Louis has helped about 500 resettled refugees start businesses, said Crosslin.
But compared with many places, there are fewer resources here for immigrants to plug into the broader business world.
Changing that dynamic is one of the goals of the city and county leaders who commissioned Strauss' study and organized Tuesday's conference — which included a panel discussion with Jacob, Crosslin, Regional Chamber and Growth Association president Joe Reagan and moderated by Post-Dispatch editor Gilbert Bailon. The city and county also launched a committee to keep studying the issue, and to recommend specific programs that can make St. Louis more welcoming to immigrants.
"It's an open book as to what," said Denny Coleman, president of the St. Louis County Economic Council. "We know we just need to do a lot more."
The study pointed to cities such as Nashville, Tenn., and Louisville, Ky., which have launched broad campaigns to better integrate immigrants into the local business community, and to immigrant resource centers in Cleveland and Philadelphia, designed to ease the transitions of newcomers.
In the meantime, informal immigrant networks keep growing here.
That's what Rao Chilakala has seen in the 12 years he's lived in St. Louis. A native of Andhra Pradesh, in southern India, Chilakala moved here on an H1B visa to work as a programmer. Today he's a U.S. citizen and owner of Mayuri Indian restaurant in Creve Coeur. Along the way, he's organized South Asian festivals and launched a website full of resources for the South Asian community — listing everything from groceries to temples to where you can see the latest Bollywood hits.
"There are 10 Indian groceries here now," he said. "A decade ago? One or two."
Chilakala gets a lot of college students through his restaurant, especially Indian students from Missouri or neighboring states who are visiting St. Louis for the weekend. There's more opportunity for them back home than there used to be, he says. But they'd likely move here, he says, if they could.
"If you have opportunities, people will come," he said in between ringing out customers at Mayuri. "Once they come here and find out what St. Louis is, they stay."