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St. Louis to draft 'economic justice action plan' as new leadership settles in

St. Louis to draft 'economic justice action plan' as new leadership settles in

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New Special Business District proposed in O'Fallon, Penrose

Everything from large well kept houses, to empty lots to run down abandoned houses fill a ten block section of the O'Fallon neighborhood in St. Louis on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020. Residents will vote in April on a special property tax to pay for extra services in the neighborhood, such as cleaning and public safety measures. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS — The city’s economic development arm will pay a contractor up to $150,000 to develop an “economic justice action plan,” to prioritize its work and also coordinate its use of federal stimulus dollars with efforts to raise private capital.

St. Louis Development Corp.’s initiative comes just more than a year after the office released its “Equitable Economic Development Framework,” a strategic plan aimed at stemming population loss and rebuilding the city’s Black middle class. Developed over an 18-month planning period, the city paid some $800,000 to Boston-based Mass Economic for the effort.

But the document was unwieldy: 445 pages with 56 strategies and action items. New Mayor Tishaura O. Jones said during her campaign that the plan didn’t tell St. Louis anything new and that “people deserve action.”

Now, with new leadership at SLDC — Neal Richardson, who took over in June following the retirement of longtime chief Otis Williams — the Jones administration is putting its own twist on the strategic direction of the powerful economic development agency. Daffney Moore, who was promoted in July to Richardson’s chief of staff, said the action plan will prioritize some of the goals in the Equitable Economic Development Framework while also laying out strategies to raise and leverage private capital as well as federal and state dollars.

“We want to make sure we have enough capital to do what we need to do in the community,” said Moore. “It’s going to take billions of dollars to redevelop the city of St. Louis.”

Moore, a former city manager in East St. Louis and Dellwood, was hired at SLDC in 2019 to oversee its local Opportunity Zone program, part of the 2017 federal tax overhaul that offers tax breaks for investors who put capital into developments located in lower-income areas. Moore also ran for the city’s school board this year and was supported by a political action fund that also supported Jones.

SLDC’s board agreed Thursday to let Richardson execute a contract for the the new action plan with the Columbus, Ohio-based Council of Development Finance Agencies, a national association that provides consulting services. St. Louis planning firm PGAV and private consultant Erica Henderson, a former official at the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership in St. Louis County, will also work on the new plan. Henderson was one of Jones’ appointees to a 25-member panel advising the administration on spending nearly $500 million in federal pandemic aid.

Board members unanimously supported the resolution, but they asked SLDC staff to provide regular progress reports to them on the plan’s development. They also instructed staff to show them the final contract when it’s written.

“I’m curious how this is all coming together, the final piece of it,” said board member Matt McBride, an attorney at Lashly & Baer.

The new action plan will be created quickly, with a draft in early November and a final plan by mid-December, Moore said.

Referencing the existing plan, SLDC board member Sean Spencer said he was “a little concerned about duplicating services.”

Moore said the contract will have a defined scope of work.

“We don’t want to duplicate anything, and that’s why it’s an action plan,” she said.

Richardson said much of the focus will be on “developing a pool of funds” so the existing plan “is actionable.”

Nahuel Fefer, Jones’ director of policy and development, said the action plan will help the city win or coordinate dollars from several federal pandemic programs, including the Build Back Better Regional Challenge, the American Rescue Plan and the pending infrastructure bill, plus a new round of New Markets Tax Credits.

Fefer has served as SLDC board chair as part of Jones’ transition but is stepping down so Richardson can chair the board as past SLDC directors have. Fefer will still work closely with SLDC, and he said the action plan would help formalize the new administration’s development incentive philosophy. Though he said he believed the city’s development principles are clear, he acknowledged developers want “clear processes and policies.”

“We’ve heard loud and clear from the development community,” Fefer said.

City Hall has renegotiated several tax incentive deals since the Jones administration moved in, most prominently the next phase of the City Foundry development that was pushed to include a $1.8 million contribution to the city’s affordable housing fund in exchange for $18 million in tax incentives.

“Actually pulling this together into a formal policy and process that developers can look at and expect consistent outcomes is important to us,” Fefer said.

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