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Coleman To Retire As Head Of St. Louis Economic Partnership

St. Louis Economic Development Partnership CEO Denny Coleman
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

The head of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership will step down from his post in August.   

Denny Coleman was the first chief executive officer of the partnership, which is the merged economic development agency for St. Louis and St. Louis County. In a press release posted on the agency’s website, Coleman said he is planning to retire from his post on Aug. 1.

"The partnership is in great shape. It’s gotten off to a terrific start," Coleman said during an interview on Thursday afternoon. "It’s got a first-rate staff from top to bottom. We’ve got a great board of directors. It’s financially solvent. And so, this is a really good time to move on and help transition to a new CEO because they’ll have a great organization to move into to and an economy that’s improving."

"It just feels right," he added.

Before he became the head of the partnership in 2013, Coleman was in charge of the St. Louis County Economic Council. He also served as the director of the DeSales Housing Corp., vice president for community development at Mercantile Bank, and as St. Louis Mayor Vince Schomehl’s development director.

When asked if St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger's election had anything to do with his decision, Coleman replied that he'd been pondering retirement regardless.

"The truth of the matter is, I had circled January of 2015 four years ago," Coleman said. "Because I did not think County Executive Dooley would run again. I thought there would be a new administration. But more importantly than that, it was timing. Twenty-five years in one place is a long time. And for all those other reasons that I said, I thought this was just the correct time."

The press release announcing Coleman's retirement featured statements from Stenger and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, who appoint members to the partnership's board. Slay said Coleman “leaves a remarkable legacy in St. Louis.” Stenger added he can’t say “enough about the good work Denny has done over the years.”

“It will be truly difficult to fill his shoes,” Stenger said. “I don’t think you’ll find a smarter person in economic development.  His standing around the nation as one of the best has helped our region grow in countless ways through the years.”

Still more work to do

One of his first tasks as Partnership CEO was putting together an incentive package to lure Boeing’s 777X to north St. Louis County. Last year,he unveiled a strategic plan for the partnership – marking the first time the city and county had a joint strategy to tackle economic development.

In addition, Coleman said he was gratified that the city and county launched a program called Accelerate STL to cultivate entrepreneurs throughout the region. He was also pleased with the progress of Mosaic Project, an initiative to make the region attractive to immigrants.

Coleman said that since he's started in the economic development sphere, most of the region's growth was "outward" into St. Louis County. He said he sees "some of the same attitudes now in the outlying counties that I saw in St. Louis County back then."

"It was an attitude of 'well, the city's got problems -- those aren't our problems, thank goodness. We must be doing well because we're getting all this growth,'" Coleman said. "When in actuality, a lot of that growth was occurring because they were the next stop down the highway. So it takes a lot more effort and innovation and creativity to put together the real estate deals in older urban, and now as we're finding out, suburban areas."

Coleman made news after Michael Brown’s shooting death when he said the unrest in Ferguson was damaging to economic opportunities throughout the St. Louis area. And his agency’s relationship with Devin James – a former spokesman for Ferguson – engendered some controversy.

After noting that the St. Louis has taken "a terrific hit to our image all over the world," Coleman said that his agency, the St. Louis Regional Chamber and the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission "have already begun conversations" about turning the tide.

"Before now, I think it would have been too early because things were still too raw," Coleman said. "It's going to be more of a gut feel than just, say, a mark on a calendar as to when it's right to start bragging about what St. Louis is. And we've got a lot to brag about. This is a wonderful community. And on top of the traditional things we tout, I think we'll have the appropriate fixes in Ferguson and the surrounding communities to talk about, too."

He said the region's business community has responded well, but there's still more work to do to get young people connected to good jobs. 

"If people in the community aren't employable because they may have a high school diploma, but they have math and reading skills at a sixth- or seventh-grade level -- just throwing technical training at them isn't enough," Coleman said. "We need a comprehensive program to deal with those young people. And I think that is coming together."

The partnership’s CEO is selected by the board of city and county appointees. Dee Joyner, the partnership’s chair, said in a statement that a national search would begin immediately. And Coleman said his agency will likely use an executive search agency to find his successor.

As to whether he'll be simply retiring or moving onto another job, Coleman quipped: "My wife asked me that same question." He added he may consider taking up specific projects or volunteer work.

"Every person I've talked to who's retired has given me the same advice -- 'don't make a decision right away,'" he said. "Give yourself some time to just relax, find out how you like being retired and then make a decision about what offers or opportunities there may be out there."

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.