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Tony's Take

Messenger: Use NFL money to make the St. Louis Promise to next generation

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Jones and Page

St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones (left) and St. Louis County Executive Sam Page. (Post-Dispatch file photos)

Post-Dispatch columnists Aisha Sultan and Tony Messenger discuss the region’s $790 million NFL settlement.

It’s time to make the St. Louis Promise.

It’s time to tell the next generation of young St. Louisans that they will have an opportunity for a better future.

It’s time to think big.

Those are my thoughts after asking readers for ideas on what to do with the $790 million settlement coming to the city and the county from the lawsuit brought against the St. Louis Rams and the National Football League. Even after attorney fees and various costs, there will be in the range of $500 million, a chunk of manna from heaven, coming to a region that could use a boost.

On Wednesday, I asked people on Twitter for suggestions on how to spend the money. Andy Karandzieff, owner of the iconic Crown Candy Kitchen in Old North, echoed a popular sentiment: “Tear down all the collapsing buildings. Pick up the trash. Cut all the weeds down. Fill the potholes. Better street lighting.”

Many others hit on issues that are important to me: expanding mass transit, improving affordable housing options, investing in north-side redevelopment, improving downtown safety, investing in public schools.

There is likely enough money to make a big difference in one of those areas, or a small difference in many of them. But the more I thought about it, St. Louis is in this odd place in history where we have money for most of those things, from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, or the American Rescue Plan (most of the funds still having not been spent), or, more than likely, the Build Back Better bill that has passed the U.S. House and is awaiting debate in the Senate.

Compare that to where we were just a couple of years ago, when some city leaders wanted to sell the airport in a fire sale, to, in effect, use it as collateral in a payday loan to get money up front to spend on some of the same items above. St. Louis was negotiating from a position of weakness. Now we’ve taken on the big-bad NFL and won. And because of Biden and Congress, we have multiple pools of money to pull from to help us accomplish many important tasks.

That’s why the ideas on how to spend the region’s new bounty that drew my attention the most were those that looked to the future.

“Something truly transformative for SLPS and North County school districts would probably be the most impactful,” wrote one reader.

“I have to second the folks in here recommending investment and using the interest to fund our needs in perpetuity versus spending a large chunk of it right away,” wrote another.

Malik Lendell had a similar idea: “Reparations for consistent and intentional divestment from Black communities. This may look like investing in businesses run by those living in the communities, paying off debts, investing in scholarships for local public education, covering rent, etc.”

That idea got me thinking about the Kalamazoo Promise. In 2005, some anonymous donors in that Michigan industrial city created a fund that would pay for, in perpetuity, tuition for any student who graduated from the Kalamazoo Public Schools to go to college or trade school. Only a few million dollars is actually spent a year — about $150 million since the fund was created — but it has had a transformational effect. It’s increased graduation rates and the school population in the city’s public school district; it’s created economic opportunity and changed lives, and families, forever.

Dozens of other, similar, promise-type funds have been established in other cities since then. Years into the experiment, the people who run the Kalamazoo Promise have realized the need to come up with support for first-time college students. Tuition isn’t enough. And like so many things in education, there have been some skewed results, with more white students finishing college on the scholarships than Black students.

Maybe the St. Louis Promise will be different. Tuition, or trade school, or investment in entrepreneurialism, or money to buy a house. Imagine the possibilities if St. Louis took this $500 million in seed money and challenged entrepreneurs (and big law firms that just won a pot of gold), to match it with cash of their own, to create a $1 billion endowment to transform the lives of the next generation of St. Louisans?

St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones already has some experience thinking about investing in the future generation, having started a program when she was the city’s treasurer to create $50 scholarship accounts for every student who enters the St. Louis Public Schools as a kindergartner.

Do Jones and St. Louis County Executive Sam Page and Gov. Mike Parson and the Board of Aldermen and the County Council have the political will to put their names on a promise that will change St. Louis forever, even if the people who reap the most benefit will never cast a single vote for them?

I don’t know the answer to that. But I hope they try to think beyond themselves and their next elections.

Make the St. Louis Promise and turn this unexpected lottery into an investment into the children who will lead us into the future.

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