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NGA site in St. Louis

The future National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency site in St. Louis, as seen looking southeast towards the St. Louis skyline on Thursday, March 17, 2016. Jefferson Avenue can be seen on the right side of the photo. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS • The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s decision to build its next western headquarters in St. Louis became final Thursday, ending a bitter bi-state battle and clearing the path for the largest federal project in city history.

Robert Cardillo, the agency’s director, preliminarily chose St. Louis in March as his preferred location. He has stood by that billion-dollar decision in recent months as officials from Illinois sought to reverse it in favor of a site near Scott Air Force Base.

On Thursday, Cardillo filed the decision with the federal register, unceremoniously closing a two-month comment and review period.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay greeted the news with two words: “I’m thrilled.”

Slay said he had spoken with Cardillo on Thursday, and his thoughts turned to the future.

“This is going to be very impactful,” Slay said. “It’s going to be impactful for the neighborhood it’s in. It’s going to be impactful for the surrounding area. It’s going to be impactful for the entire city of St. Louis.”

Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, called the decision “a decisive victory” for St. Louis.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will build the facility. Construction could begin in mid-2017.

Slay said NGA was looking at advanced design concepts meant to connect the facility with the surrounding area, which has been beset by poverty and decay.

“They don’t want this to be an island,” Slay said. “They want this to be connected with the community.”

The agency has been improving its relationship with the technology industry in recent years and has prioritized efforts to attract more tech workers. Leaders also hope to partner with nearby educational institutions and incubators, such as the Cortex district in the Central West End neighborhood.

In Washington, Missouri officials embraced the decision while Illinois officials blasted it. Federal officials competed for the project as the 2016 election cycle looms in the background.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., lauded the decision. He is a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and stressed the NGA’s “critical mission” in intelligence gathering.

“With today’s decision, the NGA has rightly acknowledged the numerous benefits St. Louis provides to the current and future generation of intelligence professionals.” Blunt said.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., added: “This is what sustained, bipartisan cooperation can look like for Missouri, and for our national security.”

Across the river, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., criticized the decision.

“I am deeply concerned about the security of the St. Louis site and I do not believe we have received acceptable answers from Director Cardillo,” said Durbin. “His decision today is short-sighted and ignores not only safety issues, but also legitimate concerns about cost overruns which will hurt taxpayers in the long-term.”

He said he supported calls by Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, for a Government Accountability Office study “into the process that was used to come to today’s conclusion.”

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., also said he supported a GAO investigation.

“This isn’t the first time NGA has deliberately used bad information to make a bad decision, which is why I have asked the top government watchdog to ensure this decision is best for the warfighter and taxpayer,” Kirk said in a statement.

But as Missouri delegation members have pointed out, such investigations are not unusual after major decisions such as this, and Missouri politicians say they are confident any challenge will be unsuccessful.

The construction of a $1.75 billion campus will be the largest federal expenditure in St. Louis’ history. Officials are hoping to use it to reshape an area north of downtown, but it will also force the demolition of several homes and businesses.

Cardillo cited St. Louis as the most attractive site to recruit younger workers to the agency. NGA employs about 3,100 workers in St. Louis and could add employees after the move, expected in 2022 or 2023.

The city will now begin the process of clearing the 99-acre site just north of the former Pruitt Igoe housing complex.

Otis Williams, the city’s economic development director, spent years navigating the complicated project and persuading residents to move. In one case, he agreed to physically move an elderly resident’s house to another neighborhood.

Slay said Williams’ “focus and determination” is the reason NGA will stay in the city it has called home for more than 70 years.

The effort has come with a hefty price. So far, the state has committed $131 million to the project: $95 million in tax-increment financing, a portion of which would include diverting state income tax payments of NGA employees; and $36 million in brownfield tax credits — an amount higher than originally expected.

The city has committed $1.5 million a year over the next 30 years, including diverting half of the 1 percent earnings tax paid by NGA workers. Currently, NGA workers pay more than $2 million in income tax to the city, and officials expect employment and payroll to grow over time.

The old Arsenal complex, just south of the Anheuser-Busch brewery, has housed the agency since 1952. That site is controlled by the Air Force. Officials haven’t said what they will do with the campus, which is packed with historic buildings dating to the Civil War.

Chuck Raasch of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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