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Critics Say New Metro Jobs Plan Isn’t Inclusive Of Surrounding Counties

Newly formed economic development group Greater St. Louis recently released a draft of a plan that aims to boost jobs across the region. But some critics say it's leaving out voices from surrounding counties in Missouri and Illinois.
David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
Newly formed economic development group Greater St. Louis recently released a draft of a plan that aims to boost jobs across the region. But some critics say it's leaving out voices from surrounding counties in Missouri and Illinois.

A draft of a new jobs plan for the St. Louis metropolitan area is drawing early criticism.

Greater St. Louis Inc., anorganization that officially will launch in January merging five economic development groups, released a draft of the STL 2030 Jobs Plan earlier this month for public comment. The organization will collect feedback until the end of January.

The jobs plan, commissioned by Civic Progress, focuses heavily on a strategy to beef up the region’s core in an “inclusive” way that also reduces racial disparities in income and wealth.

But some critics say the plan isn’t geographically inclusive of surrounding counties and are questioning its strategies.

Ronda Sauget, executive director and CEO of the Leadership Council of Southwestern Illinois, is a co-lead of a transportation-focused working group that weighed in on the jobs plan. She said she was brought into the process late in the game and hopes to see more revisions.

“I kept looking through the report and trying to highlight any mentions of the Metro East that came up in the discussions, and I was just having a really difficult time finding them,” she said.

Sauget said a jobs plan is a starting point for regional economic growth. But she’s skeptical this new effort will bring about the kind of change the region needs.

“It’s going to take a new way of thinking. And bringing all the old ideas and just kind of slapping a new name on it, that doesn’t work anymore. And it hasn’t worked in a long time. And so you really do need new people at the table,” she said.

Bruce Katz, co-founder of New Localism Advisors, authored the report after interviewing more than 200 stakeholders from across the region.

“St. Louis is one of the most decentralized, dispersed metropolitan areas in the United States. Your employment is basically flung out across the entire metro, and your downtown and other portions of the central city are weaker than peer metros,” he said.

“The lack of employment density in your core of the metro has really held back metropolitan performance across many decades.”

Katz said it’s critical that regional leaders work together on five key strategies laid out in the plan:

  • Steward an inclusive economy.
  • Restore the core of St. Louis as the jobs and cultural center of the region.
  • Build a world-class ecosystem for small businesses and entrepreneurs.
  • Become a talent engine and magnet.
  • Make St. Louis a hub for next-generation industries and technologies.

The plan’s “signature effort” is the STL Pledge. Greater St. Louis CEO Jason Hall said it aims to commit major employers across the region to buying supplies and hiring locally, as well as moving part of their workforce near key commercial districts in the city’s core.

“Spatial colocation and concentration really matter,” he said. “When your companies and other anchor institutions are all separate from each other, there's no synergy. Innovation does not happen as the normal course of events.”

Hall cited the Cortex Innovation Community in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood as evidence that the strategy works.

But St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann argues there’s no incentive for companies to voluntarily move to St. Louis.

“I think part of the problem the last 30 or 40 years, is we’ve been giving companies subsidies to move from one part of the region to the other. And as a result, the region hasn’t grown,” he said.

In response to a request for his feedback, Ehlmann recently issued a harsh critique of the jobs plan to Washington University Chancellor Emeritus Mark Wrighton, who chairs the effort.

Ehlmann questioned why the plan didn’t address issues of crime and education, which he says are barriers keeping businesses from moving to St. Louis.

Hall said that he welcomes the feedback, but that it’s not realistic for the plan to include every tactic necessary in a community action plan.

“The scope of this really is a jobs plan. It’s what we can do to work together to grow jobs. It’s not a public safety plan; it’s not a K-12 education plan,” he said.

LaShana Lewis, director of St. Louis Equity in Entrepreneurship Collective, participated in the plan’s small-business working group. She voiced the need to include more strategies around reducing barriers to entry for small-business owners, particularly entrepreneurs of color.

“I don’t think the plan is perfect. It’s a better plan than some of the ones I've seen,” she said.

Residents can learn more about the jobs plan during upcoming virtual forums, on Jan. 7 and Jan. 12, and leave feedback for Greater St. Louis on its website.

Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan

Corinne is the economic development reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.