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Why Does St. Louis Need More Immigrants?

(via Flickr/NathanReed)
St. Louis Public Radio

We need more immigrants to help expand the regional population and kick start economic growth.

Those were the findings of a study released last year by Saint Louis University professor Jack Strauss.

Since then public officials and economic experts have launched the Immigration and Innovation Initiative, which is geared toward attracting more immigrants to St. Louis.

That effort now has its first project director, former Nestle Purina executive Betsy Cohen.

In a couple of months the initiative will unveil a more detailed plan on how it will attract more foreign born people to live here.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Tim Lloyd recently spoke with Cohen about why she thinks immigration is so critical to the future of the region.  Below is an extended version of that interview and some highlights from their conversation.

Credit Courtesy of the St. Louis County Economic Council.
Courtesy of the St. Louis County Economic Council.

You’re going to be based at the St. Louis County Economic Council and you have a corporate background here in St. Louis, so, what are the economic benefits of attracting more immigrants to the region?

“Part of the results of the study were that immigrants form entrepreneurial ventures 60 percent faster than our local born population.  So the data has shown that we will have more job creation and each of the jobs created in turn creates five to ten more jobs for local people.  So, we have a greater economic impact by having entrepreneurs and immigrants come to our region.”

There’s a lot of talking in Congress about immigration reform, does that play into your effort?     

“It does play into our effort, to a great deal.  Many of the issues that keep businesses, universities, health care from being as effective as they can be is the lack clarity of what will happen to immigration on a national level.  So, it will be very important as we look in the coming months for decisions to come out of Washington that will give clarity to people who live in our region now, as well as clarity for the 11 million people that are undocumented.  And as they have clarity on their lives, and the programs and the visas, that will give clarity to us, too.  Because there will be more talent on the move.”                

We’ve been talking about bringing more foreign born talent to the region, but does this also play into attracting more domestic talent to move to the region?

“It does. There are two ways that can be impacted. One, we have a number of initiatives in the St. Louis region about attracting and retaining talent.  So, there are some general initiatives that are already going on.  But our focus here is specifically on the immigrant population.  We do know that there’s a lot of work that’s been done on what makes vibrant cities, and vibrant cities come from having diversity of people, music and restaurants.  Those communities around the country that are showing economic growth and that young people want to move to often are those that have different kinds of people, and neighborhoods, and amenities that make them more multicultural and interesting. As we work at improving the immigrants that we attract, and the diversity of talent and cultures, that will in turn help us attract and retain more people overall.”

Is there a connection between making some of the immigrants who already live in St. Louis feel more comfortable, feel more welcomed in the community, with attracting more immigrants to move here?

“I believe that is a big factor.  So, part of my early time on my listening tour is to meet with people…The key is to listen and say where are there opportunities for us to do better and also to show that we’re listening and have ideas and plans that cut across different parts of our community, but bring their voice not just into the room, but at the table.”

You’ve only been on the job three weeks, but will there be benchmarks set and developed that you can use to measure how effective this initiative is moving forward?  

“The over-arching mission is that by 2020 the St. Louis region should have the fastest increase of immigrants in our census data.  So, that will be the metric.  Do we have foreign born coming talent coming at the fastest growth rate of any of the other large, metropolitan areas in the country?  That is the one number that we’ll be shooting at.  After that number, we will have separate metrics on, what are we doing in the business community? Do we have metrics that we can measure to improve our retention? Can we document how many of the students that are foreign born that we can retain in our region?  So, we’ll be setting up metrics.”

Follow Tim Lloyd on Twitter: @TimSLloyd

Tim Lloyd was a founding host of We Live Here from 2015 to 2018 and was the Senior Producer of On Demand and Content Partnerships until Spring of 2020.