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Interior Secretary Salazar confident that Arch improvements will be funded

Walter Metcalfe at Arch news conference
Rachel Heidenry | Beacon | File photo

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar came to town today to take his own look at the five final competing plans for the Gateway Arch grounds and its surroundings, calling them all "truly exciting for me and for the nation."

And as he did on a visit here last July, months before the design competition got underway, he once again pledged his support for getting the winning design built by 2015 -- the 50th anniversary of the Arch.

"No effort will be spared to get it done," he said, "and I'm looking forward to continuing to work with community leaders" in Missouri and Illinois "to make sure we can make this vision a reality."

Salazar declined to say which design he liked best. But after viewing them, he said a "stand out" was the way the five teams of architects, landscape architects and others from around the world and here had managed to connect the now-isolated Arch to the Mississippi River, downtown and the Illinois side of the river.

With the economy down and the federal government deep in debt, getting money to build the winning design won't be easy, Salazar acknowledged. But, he noted, during national crises in the past, during the Civil War and Great Depression, for example, park, wildlife and other national conservation efforts got underway and were successful. And he said he was optimistic that the project here would be built and that it would become a "great" example and model urban park for the rest of the country.

"There is no better place for one than here," he said, with the Arch as the framework, "the best-known river in the nation" running alongside it, the city's rich history and its location in the center of the country.

"We'll have to do a lot of thinking to pull it together" on the financing end, he said, "but we will get it done, someway, somehow" by 2015.

Dressed in blue jeans, a jacket and baseball cap, Salazar toured the exhibit in the museum beneath the Arch with a group of about 20 local and National Park Service officials and others. Among them were Mayor Francis Slay, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who invited Salazar to take the tour, National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis and Susan Saarinen, daughter of Eero Saarinen, whose team produced the winning design for the Arch and 91-acre Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in a similar design competition in 1947.

Today would have been Eero Saarinen's 100th birthday -- an event that was celebrated after the tour with a birthday cake.

Like Salazar, McCaskill was enthusiastic and optimistic about the prospects of financing from a variety of federal, state and other public and private sources, even, perhaps, "kids having bake sales."

One reason for her optimism, she said, is all the support coming from politicians on both sides of the river as well as from highway and state officials, local community leaders and even private citizens. Just recently, all nine Missouri and Illinois members of the St. Louis area congressional delegation signed a letter to the CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation sponsoring the competition. The lawmakers promised to work to "achieve our common goal of erecting the winning design."

"What's so special about this is that everyone is at the table" and in favor of the project, McCaskill said. "Everyone is really, really excited about this and talking about it."

McCaskill didn't want to say which design she likes best. A jury will make that decision. The public can attend when teams present their designs to the jury from 8:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m., Thurs., Aug. 26, in the Ferrara theater at America's Center. The winner will be announced Sept. 24. But, she said, she favors the one that can be built and will be ready to go by the 2015 deadline.

Susan Saarinen also declined to name her favorite concept. She said, though, she liked the emphasis on ecology, "an aspect that is important today, but wasn't" in the late 1940s when her father's team produced its design. She also liked all the connections linking the Arch and memorial with what's around it on both sides of the river. "Today," she said, "that's important."

Walter Metcalfe Jr., a member of the CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation, helped raise nearly $2 million for the design competition; he led Salazar through the exhibit, explaining each design as they walked along.

Salazar looked intently at all of them, sometimes asking a question or two, and once turning to an aide to say, "This is neat."

At the end, Salazar asked the group as a whole how all those designs came about. "Did you just say, 'go, dream?'" he asked.

Metcalfe said that from the beginning, the design teams were given goals such as connecting the Arch with its surroundings, and "making this real" and achievable by the 2015 deadline. The price tag will come later, after the winning team is selected and does more design work and the cost estimates.

Salazar then asked the group about its favorite concept.

McCaskill answered that one, saying that "I like the one you like," and the one that will attract federal and congressional support and money to help get it built.

Read more from the Beacon

Visions of the Arch: Five finalists present designs for the future

Don't miss this chance to make the Arch better

What to do about the Arch? Beacon readers offer their suggestions

The Arch and downtown: A sense of the possible

Arch grounds design competition narrows; 5 teams picked from 49 vying 

Charlene Prost, a freelance writer in St. Louis, has long covered downtown development.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.