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Come together: Developer Richard Baron stresses teamwork as key to urban renewal

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 24, 2010 - St. Louis urban developer Richard Baron sees positive signs in federal efforts to promote collaboration in community development, but he believes the state of Missouri needs to get on board with city officials.

"It's very refreshing at the federal level because the conversation and the attitude about these things is totally different than it has ever been -- at least in the last three or four decades,'' Baron said in an interview with the Beacon Friday before delivering the keynote address at a regional housing conference. At the conference, Baron stressed the need for collaboration and shared resources among federal, state and municipal governments, agencies and community-based groups.

Baron is co-founder of McCormack Baron Salazar, which develops and manages mixed-income communities in central cities. Current projects include the old Arlington School site in north St. Louis, as well as developments in Memphis and in New Orleans, where the firm is rebuilding a public housing site destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

"Some communities will really bring themselves together around these initiatives to secure some funding to try and do some things, but it's very difficult because we don't have a state government that engages," Baron said. "And what the (president's) people are talking about is that they want to see partnerships at the municipal level, at the county level, at the state level where everybody's working together. I just don't see that in Missouri. It is just a real strain."

Baron said the administration of Gov. Jay Nixon has not shown an interest in urban issues, as indicated by his proposal to slash tax credits for developers.

"Hopefully his plans will be defeated, but that's the problem when you start having a federal government that finally gets to a place where they want to partner and they're looking around for a partner and there are no partners," Baron said. "You've got a city administration that wants to do certain things and community-based groups and others, but where is the state government and what are they going to do?"

Baron said that even if cities have a good plan for development, they are often hamstrung by a lack of resources -- and that problem is not unique to St. Louis.

"There just isn't an easy way out of the problem," he said. "But the city doesn't get much help from Jefferson City. It's a constant struggle. The mayor and his team have tried very hard to keep things going, but it's been very difficult. Most municipalities are confronted with these issues, but having a good plan is important in dealing with land area and trying to understand what kinds of things are going to be promoted."

Baron also pointed to what he describes as a lack of engagement by the private sector in St. Louis.

"Just getting the kind of energy around different initiatives and things that might happen has always been a challenge in St. Louis or certainly for the more than 40 years that I've been here," he said.

On the other hand, he pointed to the passage of Proposition A to support MetroLink as an example of the impact of unified community effort.

"Finally, there seemed to be some real energy, and if that kind of coalition could be formed around some other projects, it would really be great," he said.

Baron, a former legal aid attorney, may be best known in St. Louis for founding the Center of Creative Arts. He is the 2004 recipient of the Urban Land Institute J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development and is on the executive committee of the Regional Chamber and Growth Association. He also serves on the advisory board for the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy of the Brookings Institution.

As chairman and chief executive officer of a firm that has developed more than 100 projects in 33 cities since 1973, Baron can be counted on to share his candid, street-level perspective, which he did at the "Creating Whole Communities" conference at the St. Louis Federal Reserve.

The conference brought together community planners and developers from business, government, nonprofits and academia. Among the presenters was Shelley Poticha, director for sustainable housing and communities at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She talked about the Obama administration's emphasis on building -- or rebuilding -- affordable, sustainable neighborhoods that better meet the needs of residents.

Baron said his firm learned early on that one of the biggest hurdles to developing supportive communities is the way money is allocated. While the real transformation in neighborhoods occurs horizontally, funding from the federal government -- either directly through state agencies or through municipalities -- comes down vertically, from top to bottom.

He challenged the congressional appropriations process that he said works against attempts to pool funds because subcommittee chairs don't want to give up control over the money they allocate.

He said that if the Obama administration can move collaboration from the talking stage to the implementation stage, "it will be quite a lift."

"But even if they can get the agency people to cooperate, they go out on the Hill and then you know what you get -- we've been watching those fools for decades," Baron said, as the audience laughed. "Try to see if you can talk sense to a committee chair who's been entrenched for 15 terms about sharing resources coming through their committee with another committee to get better outcomes for families and kids."

Baron also didn't mince words when he was asked by an audience member about how race has influenced the lack of development in north St. Louis.

"It's been an issue since I've been here, and unfortunately this community has never really been honest about itself in terms of dealing with it," Baron said. "It has affected the way resources have been allocated and services delivered."

Baron said that he believes that the schools can ultimately make the difference.

"To the extent that the children can ultimately come through and get a decent education -- that is the best way to ultimately try to deal with this effect," he said.

Baron pointed to cities, such as Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala., where accommodation in the 1960s and 1970s stimulated more business opportunities to give people a chance.

"St. Louis has never done that in a serious way, and it has been the most important reason the city has lagged for all the decades -- and it is always behind -- because it has never come to grips with this issue," Baron said.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.