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St. Louis is hosting the nation’s largest geospatial conference for the first time

Drawings by a joint venture between McCarthy Building Companies and HITT Contracting show an aerial view of the new western headquarters of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in north St. Louis.
A rendering of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency's western headquarters, now under construction. The NGA anchors St. Louis' geospatial sector, and the city is showcasing its budding industry while hosting the 2021 GEOINT Symposium this week.

The biggest national gathering of geospatial industry experts kicks off Tuesday in St. Louis, putting a spotlight on the region’s emerging industry.

This is the first time St. Louis is hosting the GEOINT Symposium, short for geospatial intelligence, which is a key annual conference for those working in the national security sector for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency or for private-sector support organizations.

The event, put on by the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, will feature panel discussions Wednesday through Friday at the America’s Center in downtown St. Louis. It will include talks from the NGA's director, Vice Adm. Robert Sharp, and St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones and site tours of the NGA’s western headquarters, still under construction in north St. Louis.

Local geospatial industry leaders, including Andy Dearing, say hosting the event is a big deal for St. Louis. He’s the project lead for GeoFutures, a group shaping the local geospatial industry.

“We are extremely excited. I mean, first proud that they have selected St. Louis for this event, but also saying: ‘Yeah, you should have it here. We are doubling down, tripling down on geospatial here,’” he said.

Dearing, who is also the president of Spatial STL Advisors, said events throughout the week will showcase the region’s innovation districts, such as Cortex in midtown and T-Rex in downtown, which house geospatial startups and academic institutions conducting geospatial research.

He said hosting the conference helps put St. Louis on the map as a thought leader in the sector.

Local tourism organization Explore St. Louis booked the conference. Chief Marketing Officer Brian Hall said the symposium is expected to draw more than 3,000 people and have an economic impact of $2.5 million in direct spending.

He said the conference is in part a marketing opportunity to showcase the quality of life in St. Louis to business leaders from across the country.

“Attending a conference or coming here as a tourist is the leading edge of economic development, because if you don't want to come and spend a few days in St. Louis, you’re not going to move a company here,” he said.

The symposium will feature several St. Louis-focused panels.

Zekita Armstrong Asuquo, chair and CEO of Gateway Global American Youth and Business Alliance, will speak on two panels about the community-led planning process for development of neighborhoods around the Next NGA West facility and about workforce development.

Last year, Armstrong Asuquo’s organization started an accredited online credentialing program to teach geospatial skills, such as data analytics and geographic information systems. She said these skills are necessary for entry-level positions that don’t require a college degree.

The organization targets people ages 16-24 in under-resourced neighborhoods and rural communities.

“It’s an untapped pool of talent, and they’re fully capable,” she said. “They just need access and information to be able to participate in this industry and to thrive.”

Armstrong Asuquo said technician-level jobs range from $35,000 to $45,000 a year.

Her organization plans to build three educational buildings in north St. Louis neighborhoods near the new NGA facility, including Hyde Park and Old North. She said workforce development programs are key to developing the labor pool needed in the geospatial industry.

“If we really want to create a robust and diverse talent pipeline — and that means racially diverse, geographically diverse and gender diverse — we need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to skill young or middle-aged Americans so they can qualify for those roles,” she said.

The GEOINT Symposium will return to St. Louis in 2023 and 2025.

Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan

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