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Clearing a spot for the NGA in north St. Louis evokes mixed reactions

National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency, NGA
Maria Altman, St. Louis Public Radio
There are stretches of vacant land within the proposed north city site for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Yet 47 homeowners are within the 100-acre site, as well.

St. Louis officials are working hard to convince the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to stay in the city. But property owners in the blocks being offered as a site for the NGA have mixed feelings.

The agency is planning to leave its current location south of downtown St. Louis in the next few years. The federal agency will choose from four possible locations some time next year.

Those include the former Chrysler plant in Fenton, the MetLife/Sigma campus  in Mehlville, an area near Scott Air Force Base in Illinois and a site in north St. Louis.

The St. Louis option, 100 acres just north of the former Pruitt-Igoe housing development, is the only one that would require removing homes.  There are 47 homeowners within the area, as well as a handful of businesses.

City officials have said bringing the NGA there would improve an area that has more vacant lots and empty buildings than occupied ones.

"I think this is an exciting opportunity for this area of the city," Mayor Francis Slay said at a public hearing the NGA held in January. "It’s struggled to find anyone to make a substantial investment and to transform the neighborhood into something that’s more livable, that has more jobs."

The city is also keen to keep the $2.4 million in earnings taxes the NGA’s 3,100 employees pay each year. "If these jobs leave, the economic impact on the city is going to be substantial," the mayor said.

Yet some in the neighborhood point to the jobs and development that were promised when Paul McKee began buying property more than a decade ago. He owns more than half of the parcels within the NGA footprint, many of which he bought directly from the city.

National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, north city
Credit Maria Altman | St. Louis Public Radio
Charlesetta Taylor (in the bright green shirt) delivered more than 96,000 signatures opposing the north city site to the NGA in May.

"I guess it’s just frustrating considering all the changes that I’ve seen go on in this area, and all of the promises that have been made that were one of the things that kept us here," said resident Charlesetta Taylor. "We just assumed some of what they said would be truthful."

Taylor’s home is within the NGA’s north St. Louis footprint. She first moved into the three-story brick house in 1945 when she was 10 years old. With family all over the country who consider it home, Taylor said they don’t want to sell.

"I definitely don’t want to lose this house, and I’ve told them that," she said.

The St. Louis Development Corporation is leading the city’s effort to assemble the land. Executive Director Otis Williams said they will make every effort to assist property owners by paying fair market value, relocation costs, and even moving buildings.

"We will look for ways to assist them to the point of moving structures to locations nearby," he said.

National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, north St. Louis
Credit (Maria Altman, St. Louis Public Radio)
Charlesetta Taylor first moved into her home on North Market Street in 1945 when she was 10.

Homeowners such as Taylor are skeptical, saying the cost would be prohibitive. Yet the city is eager to avoid using eminent domain.

"It is absolutely the very last tool that we will use," Williams said.

Assembling the entire 100 acres will be pricey regardless. Williams has estimated it will take $10-12 million to buy residential properties and at least $25 million to move businesses.

And some land owners are willing to see what the city will offer.

Trojan Iron Works, which fabricates steel for construction and rehab projects, has been on North 25th Street since 1984. Brothers Doug and Eric Lowrey’s dad opened the business, and now they run it.

They were concerned when Paul McKee first began buying up property in the area more than a decade ago. When the NGA project appeared, Doug Lowrey said they decided they would be willing to move.

National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, north city
Credit Maria Altman | St. Louis Public Radio
An employee at Trojan Iron Works on North 25th Street welds. The company has been at its location since 1984.

"If it’s not the NGA it’s going to be the next thing," he said. "I really don’t want to live year to year not knowing whether I'm going to retain my facility. If the city is really wanting the property, then I’m willing to talk."

Lowrey said it will be expensive to move two massive cranes and disruptive to his business, but he said he’s ready to leave uncertainty behind.

That’s something residents in north city have lived with for a long time.

Just a few blocks away, Sarah Davis says she’s watched homes get torn down around her since she moved here in the mid-1980s.

She doesn’t want to move, but she’s open to it.

"I don’t have a problem with progress, and if progress means I need to move, just be fair to me so that I can do so," she said.

National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, north city
Credit Maria Altman | St. Louis Public Radio
Sarah Davis lives on Warren Street within the city's proposed site for the NGA.

Davis is nearing retirement and said she can’t afford house payments. Her current home has three bedrooms and a big backyard, and it’s paid off.

She said she’ll need a home of similar size because her 12 grandchildren often come for visits.

Others are continuing to fight the possibility of the NGA coming to north St. Louis. Charlesetta Taylor, with the help of the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, delivered more than 96,000 signatures to the NGA’s south city campus in May.

The NGA spokeswoman who received the signatures said they would all be included in a federally-required U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study of all four sites. That study will be released in August, and the NGA will hold more public hearings on the locations then.

The federal agency will make its final decision some time next year.

Follow Maria on Twitter: @radioaltman

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.