The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency plans to build its new western headquarters in St. Louis, keeping a decades-long relationship with the city and solidifying the spy agency’s move into the digital era.
The decision, made by NGA Director Robert Cardillo, embodies President Barack Obama’s priority of targeting urban areas with major federal investment.
“The St. Louis site provides NGA with the most technological, academic, and professional environment for this agency to develop the capabilities and solutions necessary to solve the hardest intelligence and national security problems entrusted to us by the American people,” Cardillo said in a statement given to the Post-Dispatch Thursday afternoon.
The decision means the city will keep 3,100 jobs, currently housed at the Old Arsenal complex south of Anheuser-Busch brewery, and move them to a $1.75 billion development just northwest of downtown. The move is expected to further the city’s pursuit of redeveloping the near North Side with a massive federal anchor — something that could lure more investment to the struggling area, but also give a major boost to nearby Washington Avenue.
Cardillo, after cajoling from federal officials from two states and an exhaustive study period, chose from four sites: St. Louis; the old Chrysler plant site in Fenton; the Mehlville area; and St. Clair County land adjacent to Scott Air Force Base. The Scott location, with its undeveloped 182 acres and well-connected Congressional delegation, was considered to be the city’s prime opponent.
Cardillo notified top-ranking Missouri and Illinois senators and congressmen of his decision on Thursday afternoon.
Cardillo’s process was detailed and deliberate, said Donald Kerr, NGA’s chief of media relations. “It was his decision and his decision alone,” Kerr said.
St. Louis was aided by its two major educational institutions, Washington University and St. Louis University, as well as the agency’s mission to reshape its workforce for the future.
The agency, which is rooted in Lewis and Clark’s landmark Corps of Discovery mission in 1804, provides mapping support and intelligence for the Defense Department. It was housed in several downtown buildings before moving to the Arsenal complex in 1952. The Air Force, the agency that operates the Arsenal, hasn’t said what it will do with the current site, which houses several historic buildings.
Susan Pollman, the programming director for NGA’s new western campus, said the city’s location fit well with the agency’s mission, particularly with retention and recruitment of new employees.
“We are an analytical agency, and our director is an analyst,” Pollman said.
Cardillo has placed an emphasis on modernizing the agency and recruiting the smartest computer technicians available. Mayor Francis Slay and U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, showcased the city’s urban location as a benefit. Young college graduates have shown a preference for living in dense urban areas over sedate suburban settings.
Victory for city leaders
The decision is a major victory for Slay and his staff. Slay’s team spent several years on the complicated task of compiling a large enough swath of land to house the agency. The task involved countless negotiations, the use of eminent domain, and landing $131 million in state funding to buy and clear the site.
“They certainly had more obstacles to overcome,” said Laurie Farmer, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that will build the new headquarters.
Slay said the decision to move the agency to north of downtown will “change the game” for the city’s core.
Slay spoke with Cardillo late on Thursday afternoon.
“We are going to do everything we promised to do to make sure the site is ready for development and connected,” Slay said he told Cardillo.
The news reverberated through a city in need of good news. Struggling with the emotional loss of the Rams football franchise, many had worried the NGA decision would be another blow to a city struggling with racial and social unrest. The move also will be a major boost for developer Paul McKee and his NorthSide regeneration project, which has struggled so far with court battles and financing problems.
McKee owns about 40 percent of the land in the NGA footprint, and significant land surrounding the development. Now, with a major tenant, McKee will be able to market the nearby land, including the area where the demolished Pruitt Igoe housing complex once stood. Slay aides said McKee’s ownership helped the city pinpoint a large enough swath of land to showcase to the NGA.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said the decision “will be a boon to a community that is already making enormous economic strides with a number of urban revitalization programs.”
Clay said the St. Louis location will “advance NGA’s vital national security mission and also provide the best possible environment for the exceptional employees who serve there.”
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon called the project a “transformational investment in the region’s future.” He thanked Slay and federal and state officials involved in the effort to secure it.
The decision is considered preliminary, pending a public comment period. The final decision is to come in June.
Disappointment in Illinois
The city had a formidable and motivated foe in St. Clair County. Illinois officials showcased their proximity to Scott and offered land at no cost.
Illinois officials pledged on Thursday to use the comment period to their advantage.
“In light of the preliminary decision by the NGA, I will take full advantage of the comment period to point out that Illinois is best equipped to protect men and women in uniform,” said U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who chairs the military construction subcommittee.
St. Clair County Chairman Mark Kern said Cardillo noted St. Louis’ advantage in recruiting a qualified workforce. Kern disagreed, and said he would continue making his county’s case this month.
“We were best in security and development timing, and I think those things are important,” Kern said.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a staunch advocate for the Scott site, said on Twitter: “Disappointing news, but the future of Scott remains bright.”
He added: “I will continue working with leaders at home and in Washington to ensure that Scott remains a major player in our nation’s defense.”
St. Clair County has fought to preserve Scott Air Force Base and its role as the Metro East’s largest employer. NGA would have been an added benefit for Scott when the Defense Department considers future base closures, which could happen as early as 2017. Defense officials had considered moving NGA to Scott during the last closure round in 2005, but lacked the funding.
Kern quickly offered the county’s land surrounding Scott to the government at no cost when the agency announced in 2014 that it would move.
Cost was a factor, according to NGA officials. A day after the Post-Dispatch disclosed that a federal budget used the St. Clair County land as a placeholder, Slay formally matched the offer and pledged the city would give the land for no cost.
The agency has been in growth mode, and many speculate it could expand and add jobs at its new western headquarters. The agency’s eastern headquarters is the fourth-largest federal building in the Washington area and houses 8,500 employees.
The government doesn’t release the agency’s budget for security reasons, but information revealed by NSA leaker Edward Snowden showed the agency’s 2013 budget was $4.9 billion. Snowden’s information also showed NGA’s spending has increased by 108 percent since 2004, an increase nearly double that of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Construction is expected to begin in 2018. It is to be complete by 2022 or 2023, officials said.
Chuck Raasch of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.