Magazine article St. Louis Journalism Review

Underdeveloping St. Louis: Civic Organizations Fail to Meet Their Own Standards

Magazine article St. Louis Journalism Review

Underdeveloping St. Louis: Civic Organizations Fail to Meet Their Own Standards

Article excerpt

Since the St. Louis Post-Dispatch began a public debate on the economic devolution of St. Louis, media attention has focused on policy failures of the administration of Mayor Freeman Bosley, Jr.

Several nongovernmental organizations, however, also took the economic development of St. Louis as their mission. Each organization can point to specific projects that they completed successfully. In any evaluation of their success at developing the St. Louis economy, however, each must be rated a failure.

In 1992, Earle Harbison, president of Monsanto and newly elected chairman of the Regional Commerce and Growth Association (RCGA) began an internal evaluation of economic development efforts in St. Louis. He concluded that development efforts for the whole St. Louis area were failing and in need of reform. His key finding, according to RCGA Director Richard Fleming, was that over the previous 10 years there had been no net job growth in the greater St. Louis region, which consisted of the city, six nearby Missouri counties and five Illinois counties.

Instead of new jobs coming into the region, old ones simply got shifted around as municipalities and counties sought to grow by stealing from their neighbors. And while job growth ground to a halt in metropolitan St. Louis, it picked up elsewhere. The rate of job growth had doubled in Pittsburgh, Minneapolis and Cincinnati. It had tripled in Indianapolis and Denver. One result, says Fleming, is that the population of the region virtually stagnated. Growth in the 1980s made up for losses in the 1970s, but the population dwindled again from 1990-1994 as people left the region looking for jobs or business opportunities.

The cost of civic progress

In 1993, Harbison got Civic Progress' support for creating a "new regional economic development planning entity," in which Civic Progress would preside over a partnership of government agencies and executives with business leaders, and the RCGA would staff. Called the Greater St. Louis Economic Development Council (GSLEDC), it met for the first time on March 15, 1994. In its short life it has achieved impressive results, at least in comparisons with the accomplishments of other local organizations.

Civic Progress, the organization of CEOs of national companies based in St. Louis, describes itself in its 1995 Annual Report as "a forum through which business leaders can take on projects designed to address specific community issues," focusing on "downtown revitalization, economic development, education and quality of life." The Annual Report lists the group's major recent accomplishments in the areas of downtown revitalization and economic development as:

* the construction of the Kiel Center and bringing the hockey arena and St. Louis Blues hockey team together under one ownership;

* the construction of the TWA Dome (or "twadium") and the luring of the Los Angeles Rams football team to St. Louis;

* the success of the MetroLink light rail line;

* the expansion of the Gateway Arch park to the east side of the Mississippi River;

* the organization of the GSLEDC;

* the preservation of TWA and of Lambert Airport as TWA's hub;

* the organization of the Critical Technologies Partnership "to accelerate the development and commercialization of advanced, innovative technologies";

In other words, Civic Progress members determine their success in terms of limited projects that are unrelated to their core businesses, not by the overall impact of their activities on region's growth or decline. Even a successful project, however, can do more harm than good.

The Civic Progress companies in the Kiel Center Partnership failed to renovate the Kiel Opera House, as promised. The financial pressures on the city to make payments on the bonds it floated to subsidize the project were behind the indecent haste with which the city demolished the Beaux Arts Children's Building to build a parking lot. …

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