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High school students get a lesson in economic realities

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 17, 2009 - While Tri-City Port District general manager Dennis Wilmsmeyer was describing the volume of goods -- 3 million tons -- transported annually through the 1,200-acre facility, the environmental and cost benefits of river transport weren't lost on the group of visitors gathered around his conference room table.

In fact, they wanted to know: Why aren't more goods transported by barge?

Wilmsmeyer nodded and commended the group for asking yet another good question, and then explained that barge transport takes longer than over-the-road hauling -- which doesn't exactly fit with the "we want it now" mentality of life today.

His guests were from just across the river -- 16 students from St. Louis-area high schools who participate in Civitas, a nonprofit education program that encourages students to become knowledgeable and active citizens in their communities. Though they live within the region, most had never been to the port district, which is located in Granite City, Madison and Venice.

Caroline Newman, who just graduated from St. Elizabeth's Academy, said that before the day's visit most of what she knew about Granite City came from hearing the community mentioned in local weather reports. She took to heart Wilmsmeyer's comments about the critical need for planning in business and development.

"Today I learned how the economy is affecting industrial settings as opposed to the business settings we've been learning about -- and what I need to prepare for as I train to be an engineer at Missouri University of Science and Technology," she said.

Newman's group, dubbed the "Urban Go-Team,'' spent last week observing and meeting with government officials, urban planners, business and civic leaders to learn about jobs and how Americans are coping with the economic downturn. Accompanied by Civitas director Arthur Lieber and staff members, they did street polling and met with the Mayor Linda Goldstein of Clayton, saw neighborhood development in St. Louis, and toured local businesses and the Danforth Plant Science Center.

Though they certainly looked like high school students in their T-shirts, jeans and sandals, the students were comfortable discussing complex economic issues related to unemployment, planning, tax credits and the environment.

Joining Wilmsmeyer were David Stoecklin, executive director of the Madison County Employment and Training program, and John Herzog, economic development coordinator for Madison County Community Development.

Julia Epplin-Zapf, a student at Metro High School, said after the presentation that she had learned a lot about how area residents are recovering from the recession. She asked Stoecklin about the possibility of Granite City finding new industry.

Stoecklin stressed the importance of retraining the workforce for new kinds of jobs, and the panelists all agreed that the region, in general, and Granite City, in particular, must move to become a more diversified economy.

Stoecklin acknowledged the impact of the region's manufacturing layoffs, including 2,000 workers from U.S Steel's Granite City Works.

"As steel goes, so goes Granite City," he said.

Lieber founded Civitas in 1991. While many Civitas programs focus on international issues, the participants are also urged to "think globally and act locally." In addition to sponsoring Model United Nations programs, the organization holds conferences and educational events for high school students. Civitas also collaborates with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting on the Global Gateway Project.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.