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ST. LOUIS COUNTY • The sign welcoming Gravois Road motorists to this south St. Louis County locality is a bit misleading.

Sure, the school and fire districts serving the area’s 20,000 residents pay homage to Johann Aff, the 19th-century farmer, postmaster and namesake of the roughly 4-square-mile community on the city-county line.

Yet, as all familiar with the quirky nature of county jurisdictions can attest, Affton, technically, does not exist.

At least not under the definition of a city as spelled out by Missouri law.

Lacking a city charter or elected officials other than the St. Louis County Council member who represents the area’s interests, an unlikely source has become the de-facto seat of local government.

“Most people turn to the (Affton) Chamber (of Commerce) for questions about the community,” says Marty Carr, an Affton real estate agent and property manager.

It is, therefore, rather appropriate that commerce has taken the lead in awakening Affton’s sense of identity.

The catalyst: a $10 million overhaul of Affton Plaza. The plaza is an 11-acre retail hub that long ago fell into disrepair.

Developer Lawrence Chapman expects tenants to begin occupying the first of the seven buildings his firm is rehabbing on the 126,000-square-foot site later this year.

At the same time, the Chapman Ventures project dovetails with a joint effort by St. Louis County and the East-West Gateway Council of Governments to revitalize Gravois Road through the Great Streets initiative.

Under the plan, Affton’s primary artery will one day be a landscaped, bicycle-friendly thoroughfare with updated lighting and sidewalks, from River Des Peres to Mackenzie Road.

Affton residents and businesses gave the Great Streets proposal a collective thumbs-up at a series of public hearings this month. An online survey also shows overwhelming support for the project.

The input from the survey and the public hearings will frame a preliminary design report that could be released as early as next month.

“The pieces are coming together for Affton,” said County Executive Steve Stenger. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Stenger has a personal stake in the transformation of the community where he grew up and went to school.

As a councilman representing South County, Stenger worked with Chapman to restore Affton Plaza, situated in the heart of Affton — Gravois and Mackenzie roads.

Chapman acknowledges an upgrade of a down-on-its-luck shopping center in “middle-class America” may lack the allure of a high-profile project in affluent West County.

But he maintains an investment in South County is a sound economic decision.

“The demographics in South County are solid,” said Chapman. “It’s not high growth. But year in, year out, it’s solid.”

A Chapman Ventures analysis determined that $52,094 is the average income in households within a mile of Affton Plaza.

The county granted about $3 million in tax-increment financing to subsidize the construction phase of the project. Community Improvement District taxes will cover maintenance and future improvements to the shopping center.

Those revenue streams will fall solely on Affton Plaza tenants and customers.

“All the taxing jurisdictions (the school and fire districts) came together on the TIF,” Stenger noted. “Everyone really wanted to do it.”

The additional enhancement of Gravois Road has some envisioning the ambiance of a traditional downtown shopping district along the Gravois corridor.

“It could be Webster (Groves),” said Carrie Carrigan, a bank official and president of the Affton Chamber.

The Gravois Road recommendation is similar to Great Streets initiatives to transform West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson and Dorsett Road in Maryland Heights.

“Better street lights, bike lanes and landscaping — it can only be a benefit,” said Tyler May, manager of Federhofer’s Bakery, the landmark business his grandparents, Bill and Merle Federhofer, opened 50 years ago at 9005 Gravois Road.

The prospect of a new and improved Gravois however doesn’t appeal to everyone.

Now an 86-year-old Crestwood resident, Joe Weber grew up in Affton and returns to his old haunts frequently to pick up baked goods at Federhofer’s.

Weber sees little value in sprucing up the two-lane gravel road he recalls from childhood.

“If it ain’t broke, then why fix it?” he wants to know. “Why waste the money?”

Harold Blunt on the other hand isn’t averse to an update of the thoroughfare fronting the barber shop he has operated at 8923 Gravois Road for the past six years.

He nonetheless questions the priorities of county and regional government.

“We need jobs now more than we need new streets,” the barber said.

But Stenger is joined by the local business community in the belief that a combination of a redeveloped Affton Plaza and an improved aesthetic along Gravois Road will win over skeptics and serve notice of what Affton has to offer.

“The community wants economic development,” said the county executive. “And we want for Affton what we want for every community in St. Louis County — to make it a more walkable and livable place.”

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