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Take 5 with five transplants about St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 9, 2012 - On Thursday night, a group of transplants gathered in a city that’s known for its neighborhoods, its ball team and its one defining question. Where did you go to high school?

Lots of transplants like to answer that question and then watch the inquisitor squirm or look confused. Thursday night,St. Louis Transplants hosted the event with both insiders and transplants to examine how to promote growth in the region.

Speakers included Aaron Perlut, a marketing a PR guy who cofounded Elasticity and wrote the Forbes column “Why St. Louis Doesn’t Suck,”; Christopher Chung, CEO of Missouri Partnership, a nonprofit economic development corporation; Charles Schmitz, dean emeritus, University of Missouri-St. Louis, and cofounder of St. Louis is a World Class City; and Alex Ihnen, writer with www.NextSTL.com.

And so, this Beacon “Take 5” Q and A involves five people (our fifth is Anthony Barlett, with St. Louis Transplants) to discuss the night, what was learned and what needs to happen next.

Where did the idea for this event come from?

Bartlett: It came from the countless conversations we have had with transplants -- so many of whom are saying the same thing: St. Louis is great, my job is great, my house is amazing, but I always feel like an outsider, and locals don’t seem to care if I come or go.

Thus, we wanted them to see and experience that is not the case; and provide a forum where they can listen to each other and they are truly welcome.  Equally important, we wanted them to see how "the powers that be," such as Mayor Francis Slay, Chris Chung at Missouri Partnership, SLCEC and Brian Hall from the CVC are personally interested in seeing them succeed here. Nothing demonstrated that more than their presence and time the event.

The whole high school question has become shorthand for both understanding where people came from economically and for making connections. Is there another question you think we should be asking each other when we first meet?

Chung: I always like to know what it is that brought someone here to St. Louis. I think that a natural question for most people is what's their favorite thing so far about St. Louis?

Schmitz: In my estimation, "We are all from St. Louis!" So I say this to people I meet from St. Louis metro -- "You are walking down 5th Avenue in New York City and someone asks you where are you from?"  My bet -- they will answer they "are from St. Louis!" Being "from St. Louis" is what binds together our metro community. We should think more inclusively than divisively.

Ihnen: What are you interested in? What do you care about? Tell me what your passion is and I guarantee that St. Louis has a place for you. It may not be obvious or easy to find, but once you start to get to know the community, there are endless possibilities; and my experience tells me that if you can talk about your passion and interest, that you will find a supportive and vibrant community in St. Louis.

I’m also a transplant, and one of the things that always strikes me about St. Louis is how many people are from here. What do you think transplants can bring to the discussion of who we are and how to let people know that, that maybe natives can’t?

Perlut: I've lived in seven cities over the past 20 years or so and it's given me some perspective on what makes a city a great place to live. It's one of the reasons I wrote "St. Louis Doesn't Suck" for Forbes. It's a great city and we tend to undervalue what we have here.

Ihnen: I often hear things described by locals as a St. Louis problem, whether it be vacant land, parking, traffic, schools, crime - the whole list of social ills. I think it often adds to the feeling here that things can’t change, that other cities are more exciting and don’t suffer from some of the same issues. Transplants can provide context and help dispel some of that, bringing new ideas and energy to tackling those issues here. Transplants also are not obligated to own the mistakes and ills of the city’s history. They start new and see potential where there’s been failure before. That’s incredibly valuable.

Schmitz: As a transplant myself 16 years ago (I had a strong connection here due to my father and my grandmother's work), many people like it here and so stay. Others leave but return later to raise a family, etc. Personally, I think this speaks to the high quality of life of our community. In my role as a professor, dean, leader of a civic-minded group and the like, I have felt my ideas and opinions have always been welcomed "by natives." Transplants should just get involved in the conversations! Their voices will be heard. They can be like me -- I feel like a native!

Tell us about the evening from your perspective. Who was there, and what were they talking about?

Perlut: I'm just here to dance with Mayor Slay and drink the free beer. 

What ideas came up that you think are worth pursuing? What’s next?

Schmitz: Clearly, I believe that expanding St. Louis County's borders to include St. Louis, making it the 91st municipality in St. Louis County, is an idea whose time has come. As a region, we will always be characterized unfairly unless this is fixed! In the final analysis, this is an economic development opportunity. We are ALL St. Louis and we need to start acting like it and taking actions to effect it. Our economy and the economy of Missouri depend on it.

Perlut: We need to do a better job of telling the outside world why St. Louis is a great place to live, work, raise a family and eat bacon. We have a community-based solution in the works and are in the process of building a broad coalition of support around it.

Bartlett: Two topics came up over and over. One: airport, airport, airport. It isn’t just one thing, it’s the only thing. We must get the option of direct flights to anywhere back to our community. Executives are leaving for cities where they can take "day" trips. They won’t tolerate the inconvenience.

Two: there is a feeling that St. Lousans are so territorial they shoot themselves in the foot – very cliquish and provincial when it comes to some things. “That’s my friend.” “This is MY idea.”

They would rather have personal credit than collaborate in all things business and social. If the sentiment became about growing a great city, instead of the in-fighting that occurs among locals and fiefdoms, we could realize our very special potential.