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St. Louis' development agency seeks community input for economic growth strategy

SLDC launches town hall meetings on August 14, 2018
Melody Walker | St. Louis Public Radio

The St. Louis Development Corporation has kicked off a campaign of town hall meetings aimed at improving its public image.

SLDC executive director Otis Williams on Tuesday told an audience at the LaunchCode headquarters on Delmar Boulevard, in the Fountain Park neighborhood, “We want to become more transparent.”

In June, the city and SLDC declared one of their largest real estate development projects, Northside Regeneration, in default of a redevelopment agreement. Developer Paul McKee had amassed 1,500 acres of land, encompassing over two square miles in north St. Louis, in 2009, but failed to fulfill numerous commitments to the city and allegedly mishandled state tax credits.

When asked about the status of the failed McKee project, Williams said, “We are looking at how to advance the project. We are involved in some legal things right now. We will have some plans going forward. But I can’t talk about in a public forum now.”

What exactly does the SLDC do?

Williams told a diverse audience of about 100 residents that many people don’t know what the agency does. “Sometimes people believe it’s all in a black box, and we’re not transparent,” he said.

To help clarify the economic development process and the role of the SLDC, Williams said his organization is making more documents available online. “We want to become more transparent and help people understand what we do.”

Williams presented an hour-long overview of the SLDC’s operations. As the non-profit, quasi-governmental economic development arm of the city, SLDC oversees 12 agencies and commissions.

Williams outlined a bureaucracy that controls programs geared to promote investment in the city including tax increment financing, low-interest business loans, maintaining and selling abandoned property, and overseeing the St. Louis Port Authority.

“We got a lot of information today about things that I wasn’t aware of at all,” said Bridget Stegall, a resident from south St. Louis. Her son, Joseph Stegall said, “I’m looking forward to the next meeting. I’m interested in what they are going to do for the more poverty stricken areas.”

In another public outreach effort, the SLDC debuted a television show last month called “Development STL” on STLTV, the city’s public access television station.

Setting the stage for a new strategy

When one member of the audience called the SLDC “a slum landlord,” in reference to a growing number of abandoned buildings and vacant lots in the city, Williams was quick to respond. “Our goal is to do better,”  he said. 

“The LRA (Land Reutilization Authority) has more than 12,000 properties to take care of with a staff of eight people.” He acknowledged that vacant properties are a major concern in St. Louis and mentioned several new initiatives that hope to address the issue.

Kevin Bryant, a St. Louis County resident and developer who is working on a project in the Fountain Park  neighborhood said he found the meeting informative and positive. “It’s on us to take action. We can make Delmar the Mason-Dixon line, or we can pretend it doesn’t exist and invest in one another.”

A resident of St. Louis' West End neighborhood, Justin Idleburg said, “I came to this meeting to find out what kind of resources, tools, maps, things the SLDC has to offer to help lead a community initiative to break the digital divide for our kids.” Idleburg said he wants to share what he learned about the SLDC with his neighbors.

For Williams it was the beginning of a more engaged conversation between the agency and residents.

“We are setting the stage for a new economic development strategic plan,” he said. “During the course of that process we will have a number of these kinds of forums so that we can interact with people, and people can tell us what’s on their minds. We need to solve a lot of problems and make the city better.”

The next town hall meeting has not been scheduled. But Williams said a committee will select an outside firm in September to produce a economic development plan for the city. The process is expected to take 10 to 12 months once a contract is signed.

Follow Melody on Twitter: @MelodyBird