Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Boosters' Effort Looks to Lessen St. Louis Regional Divide

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Boosters' Effort Looks to Lessen St. Louis Regional Divide

Article excerpt

ST. LOUIS * For many Missouri residents, crossing the Mississippi River into neighboring Illinois marks a mental hurdle as much as a physical divide.

The oil refineries, toxic waste incinerators, strip clubs and decrepit buildings that line the highways eastbound out of St. Louis don't inspire weekend getaways. But civic leaders in southwestern Illinois are out to change that perception, focusing an image- boosting effort on the area's small-town values, affordable housing and family-friendly activities. The campaign's name "Get to Know M.E." refers to the Metro East, which the Illinois suburbs are referred to in St. Louis.

Metro East boosters acknowledge that the cluster of communities ranging from historic towns such as Alton and Edwardsville to economic engines such as Scott Air Force Base, a top regional employer, have long suffered from an inferiority complex, in no small part due to East St. Louis' reputation for poverty and violence.

"The river is wider coming over to Illinois than it is going to Missouri," said Carol Bartle of Belleville, a retired business owner spearheading the image reboot that began in March. The campaign features testimonials from 27 local luminaries, including utility company and hospital executives, college presidents, restaurant owners and bankers.

None are from East St. Louis, a city of nearly 27,000 with a population that's 98 percent black, and all but one is white. The campaign's lack of racial diversity sabotages its attempts to promote regional inclusion, according to Matt Hawkins, an East St. Louis community activist.

"It doesn't surprise me," he said. "It's par for the course."

Bartle noted that the community leaders portrayed in the ad campaign weren't recruited but instead offered their services, and denied any intent to exclude some parts of the Metro East.

"We have not chosen to avoid the folks in East St. …

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