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St. Louis’ new geospatial identity is emerging, and people across the country are noticing

Vice Admiral Frank Whitworth, the current NGA director, stands in front of a podium at the 2023 GEOIN symposium in St. Louis. Text on a screen behind him reads "From Maps to Metaverse."
Eric Schmid
St. Louis Public Radio
Vice Adm. Frank Whitworth, the current NGA director, gives a keynote address at the 2023 GEOINT symposium in St. Louis on Tuesday.

St. Louis is again playing host for the GEOINT Symposium, drawing thousands to the city’s downtown this week for the largest annual gathering of geospatial intelligence professionals in the country.

This year’s event, less than two years after the city last hosted it, comes at a critical time for the region as many of the investments into the industry begin to bear fruit.

“St. Louis is the place to be if you want to position yourself at the future of GEOINT,” said Vice Adm. Frank Whitworth, the current National Geospatial Intelligence Agency director, during his keynote address.

The Gateway City has a long history with the NGA dating to the early 1800s, adding another chapter when its next facility opens in north St. Louis by early 2026, Whitworth said. He also announced a change to that facility’s name to NGA-St. Louis from NGA West.

“There’s a pride there,” he said. “It’s important for people to connect with where they are as well as who they’re with. This is the first place where we’re going to try this on for size.”

The name change may be minor, but it underscores an emerging identity for the St. Louis region as a leader in the geospatial industry.

“St. Louis put in the effort years ago to have this new facility built here and then recognized that that was not the end of the journey, that was the beginning of the journey,” said Keith Masback, principal consultant at Plum Run LLC. He previously spent 10 years as the CEO of the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation.

He points to the region’s many academic institutions and commercial companies that are collaborating to realize the potential afforded by the federal government’s nearly $2 billion investment in a new project for the broader St. Louis community.

“It’s about creating a pathway so that young people walking down the street in north city can look at that building and say, ‘I can work in there, I can contribute meaningfully in there,’” he said, “and not see it as an alien object that sits in the middle of their reality.”

For Whitworth, the St. Louis region’s success in cultivating and maintaining strong ties with this industry, including those with primary and secondary schools and the region’s historically Black public university, is something other communities in the country can and should look to, he said.

“Because it is proving to be effective thus far here, we’re paying attention to where else it can be effective,” Whitworth said. “To us, it’s the model that we want to employ elsewhere, and I think, frankly, you’re going to find it in other areas of military and combat readiness.”

Companies from outside the region are also tracking this groundswell around the local geospatial industry.

“There really is noplace else in the United States or the world that has this enthusiasm, dedication and interest in developing a geospatial community,” said Patty Mims, director for global national government for Esri.

The mapping and location intelligence company based in Redlands, California, announced an expanded presence in the Globe Building in St. Louis’ downtown. That building has other geospatial tenants, like Maxar, Ball Aerospace and General Dynamics.

“Having all those companies in the same building, the hallway conversations, the lunches, the impromptu meetings, as well as the formal meetings we’ll be putting together, is just another way for us to build that community,” Mims said.

As much as the local geospatial industry closely orbits NGA’s new facility, the region also stands to benefit as geospatial intelligence becomes paramount to other emerging technologies, like precision agriculture, autonomous vehicles and smart cities, Masback said.

“In almost every vertical in our economy, these technologies are revolutionizing how things are done,” he said. “The technologies are moving in that direction, and this city is positioning itself to be able to take advantage.”

Masback adds that St. Louis is at the forefront of a shift in the federal government to leverage unclassified technology or solutions for challenges in the classified space. NGA-St. Louis and the Globe Building are examples; both have a mix of unclassified and classified working areas, he said.

“So much of this is now being built anew in St. Louis,” he said. “It’s akin to being purpose-built for a new way of operating.”

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.