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Aaron Perlut: Downtown St. Louis needs you to get your heart in shape

Aaron Perlut: Downtown St. Louis needs you to get your heart in shape

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Downtown Washington Avenue

Amid the coronavirus outbreak on March 21, an empty Washington Avenue next to America's Center Convention Complex is illuminated by a streak of sunlight downtown.

I moved to St. Louis 15 years ago and have largely had high hopes for the region. It’s why I raised a family and started several businesses here. Yes, St. Louis has flaws, but most are not so different from other cities.

During this period, I’ve worked on regional growth initiatives in St. Louis, statewide Missouri, Denver, Champaign-Urbana and elsewhere. I’ve come to believe that, just as a human body is only as strong as its heart, a region is only as strong as its downtown.

City centers occupy minimal land mass but have substantial regional economic significance as centers of commerce, transportation, education and government. For example, in calculating the value of downtown Minneapolis to its region, the International Downtown Association found the city center represented 29% of Minneapolis’ value despite occupying only 6% of the city’s land.

Downtowns matter, leading me to the heart of our region: Downtown St. Louis. Right now, it feels empty. Streets are quiet, restaurants are closed, and the convention center sits idly. I see it all, right where my office and now-closed bar are situated.

Much of this is obviously due to the coronavirus, which I believe was nothing anyone could have foreseen. But from my vantage point working closely with economic development officials, downtown’s trajectory changed following Michael Brown’s tragic shooting in August 2014 in Ferguson.

Ferguson’s shadow loomed large across metropolitan St. Louis as demonstrated by an analysis performed by my company, Elasticity, at the time. Within two weeks of Brown’s death, some 88,000 news stories surfaced about Ferguson, resulting in 100 billion mostly negative media impressions, creating an indistinguishable link between Ferguson and the St. Louis brand. St. Louis also possessed the nation’s strongest social media “attention signal strength” — a measurement of posts about a city — three to six times higher that Atlanta, Las Vegas, the District of Columbia, Indianapolis and San Francisco.

In spring 2015, I spoke at a locality-marketing conference in Sweden. My fears were confirmed. In the eyes of attendees, Ferguson equated to a dangerous city of St. Louis.

A year later, I listened to a presentation by Kitty Ratcliffe of Explore St. Louis. She warned us about two important concerns: First, our convention center had fallen behind competing cities. Second, because conventions work on four-year-cycles, she predicted convention traffic would drop during the four years following Brown’s shooting. But her warning seemed to fall on deaf ears. In very St. Louis fashion, her listeners were good at discussing challenges, putting together blue-ribbon panels or laying blame — but not great at addressing issues.

In 2018–19, convention business began declining amid restaurant closures like Robust and Stefano’s. We could see diminishing foot traffic and revenues through our own bar, Tiny Bar.

Enter the coronavirus — the death knell for Tiny Bar. There’s no one to blame. We’re at peace. But I know our fellow restaurant owners are not. Gioia’s Deli left. Pi and Gringo Tacos + Burgers are on hiatus until the spring. Revenues at Hi-Pointe and Sugarfire Smoke House are down 70%.

Folks in, say, Chesterfield, might be thinking: Downtown does not affect me. But that’s not true. As I heard from dozens of attendees at the Sweden conference and family and clients across the country, to outsiders, towns from O’Fallon, Illinois, to O’Fallon, Missouri, are all just part of greater St. Louis. If downtown’s reputation crumbles because people are afraid to move a business or relocate here, it impacts us all.

What can be done? Let’s start with what not to do: Obsessing about manufacturing positive news stories. Putting lipstick on a pig doesn’t work. I’m a public relations guy. I know this.

Instead, all 2.9 million of us in metro St. Louis must reclaim downtown. Stop whining about what’s wrong or trying to place blame. Quit worrying about being left out of some decision-making loop and focus on what’s right. Just do something to help. It can be big or small. Find a way to support downtown in a socially responsible way. Drive or bike downtown. Visit the St. Louis Wheel at Union Station or a restaurant with outdoor seating. Walk along the riverfront or stay at a hotel.

Our bar’s not coming back. That’s okay. But there are thousands of lives directly tied to downtown’s success, along with those of 2.9 million people, whether folks realize it or not.

Our region’s heart needs everyone here to reclaim it. Get up, get out, and get your heart in shape.

Aaron Perlut is a founding partner of St. Louis-based marketing firm Elasticity.

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