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Commentary: The region should hedge its bets on Boeing

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 29, 2010 - With the recent signing of the FY2010 defense budget and other policy changes, Boeing is in the process of losing several contracts, including work on Missile Defense, Future Combat Systems and maintenance work on its own KC-10 aircraft. These losses come on top of fierce struggles to simply continue domestic production of the F/A-18 and the C-17, two of the few programs left in the St. Louis area.

In addition to defense sector woes, Boeing's acclaimed Dreamliner is years behind schedule and the company has picked a fight with the union that does a significant portion of both its civilian and defense work by announcing further layoffs in the machinist-organized Seattle region while moving a new plant to anti-union South Carolina. Finally even if Boeing is awarded the upcoming refueling tanker contract, the hard truth is that few of those jobs will come to St Louis.

St. Louisans can't think that our community - and the 15,000 workers here -  is exceptional to Boeing. During defense budget debates last summer, the company proudly proclaimed that it has facilities in 46 states to produce the F/A-18. St Louis is a small piece of a vast political machine, designed to manipulate our government officials in ways more impressive than any machinist's lathe. Heck, it's becoming clear that this strategy of outsourcing and spreading work across the country and the globe is, at least in part, one of the causes of the Dreamliner delays.

McDonnell Douglas' infrastructural legacy has kept Boeing in our region, but these facilities are aging, and the products produced here are gradually becoming obsolete. As this company loses more and more defense contracts, especially those with strong connections to our region, it might not be long until we see this community staple crumble before our eyes. It is time for us to recognize that Boeing is an asset in decline for our community.

There are about 50 military contractors in the region, many of them with close ties to Boeing. If Boeing were to shutter its doors here, there would be extensive collateral damage. This represents a dramatic liability, but it also points to alternative opportunities.

Because these other contractors are not completely wedded to Boeing's decisions to spread its work across the world, they have the capability to hedge their investments and start looking toward other production possibilities, thus insulating themselves and a key remnant of our industrial infrastructure from a potential Boeing fall-out.

Thankfully, these other contractors and regional economic leaders can refer to a proven, alternative vision of community investment with high payouts that also solved dramatic problems. In the 1980s and '90s, Chattanooga, Tenn., desperately needed to reduce the smog that blanketed the city. To do this, it looked to electric buses to reduce emissions. Not finding an existing electric bus industry, the city created their own and not only solved the smog problem, but this new industry turned into a major regional employment center.

Perhaps our regional blemishes could also be turned into assets. Urban blight, urban sprawl, vulnerability to flood, empty production facilities, a brain drain, dependence on fossil fuels, insufficient access to health care, interstate congestion, decaying infrastructure: All of these imperfections represent both liabilities and opportunities for our region. And we don't need to spread employment facilities across the world to generate the political will to change them.

What if our regional production facilities affected regional problems? While manufacturing defense products has some intangible benefits for our community, I have yet to catch an F-18 to work. No C-17 has ever helped speed my way across the Mississippi and merge onto I-70. I've never seen an F-15 that runs on or creates renewable energy. And missile defense won't keep our mighty rivers from flooding city streets.

Boeing recently announced that it is venturing into the power-grid market. If this program can make its home in St. Louis, Boeing may represent a bright spot in the future of our local economy. We should encourage the company to do just that.

But I'm not willing to wage the economic health of our region on this singular "If." It is time for a real study of regional needs, regional assets, and regional possibilities. My hypothesis is that such a study will regard Boeing as a gross liability and will show us that responding to local social, environmental, and infrastructure problems will also provide local economic solutions.

Andy Heaslet is the director of the St. Louis based Peace Economy Project