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TIF for North Side redevelopment passes first test

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 23, 2009 - Nearly $391 million in tax-increment financing for a proposed $8 billion redevelopment project in north St. Louis passed its first major test Wednesday night when the city's TIF commission sent the plan on to the Board of Aldermen.

In a unanimous vote after a three and a half hour hearing, the commissioners recommended that Paul McKee's NorthSide Regeneration project receive a TIF for its first two phases -- one in the area around the 22nd Street exit off of Highway 40 and other near where a new Mississippi River bridge will end in north St. Louis.

The plan -- including both the TIF and a request by McKee that the city guarantee half of the TIF amount -- now moves to the aldermen, probably early next month. If it is successful there, it moves to the city's Board of Estimate and Apportionment, which includes the mayor, the comptroller and the aldermanic president.

But that final hurdle may not be easy to clear. At least one member of the Estimate Board, Comptroller Darlene Green, is strongly opposed to city backing of the McKee TIF, a member of her office told the commission Wednesday night.

About three dozen people addressed the commission, split roughly down the middle in favor of and against the TIF and the McKee plan in general. After the vote, McKee noted that the proposal has been revised considerably as a result of community meetings he has held in recent months, and he expects that process to continue.

"The more knowledge that the community has, the more we evolve to a community program we can all agree with," he said. "Openness and knowledge are our best friends."

Noting that the path to the plan began for him more than five years ago, he said that the first public acknowledgement of support "feels pretty good."

He also noted that tax-increment financing in the first two phases of the project will be used entirely to improve infrastructure in an area that has not seen much updating in recent decades. "This is the most pure use of TIF I've ever seen," he added.

In a presentation before public testimony, Barbara Geisman, the executive director for development for the mayor's office, went through the numbers for the NorthSide project: 4,600 parcels of land on 1,500 acres, with development set to start next year and continue until 2030. It is projected to create more than 22,000 permanent jobs and 43,000 construction jobs.

The TIF amount has been revised downward twice, with the latest numbers released on Wednesday. It is front-loaded for the first two phases of the project, which would get nearly $200 million of the total.

The newly revised proposal also includes more explicit language about eminent domain, saying it would not be used to take churches or owner-occupied residences, and it would not be used at all without specific additional legislation from the Board of Aldermen. McKee said after the meeting he does not expect to have to take any properties with eminent domain.

A standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 packed Room 208 at City Hall, with an overflow into the hall outside. Those who couldn't get into the main room were not happy about it; at one point, people banged loudly on the door of the balcony, which was closed instead of allowing more people into the main room.

Many of the project's supporters wore bright yellow and green T-shirts proclaiming the need for jobs; some of the shirts had the names of McKee's companies on them, McEagle and Paric. Those supporters showed up early, taking up many of the prime seats.

Speakers were required to sign up beforehand, by 7:15 p.m., and were kept to a strict two-minute time limit. Many presentations were interrupted by applause, catcalls or both, but for the most part the session was peaceful and run expeditiously by commission chair David Newburger. One person who refused to leave the podium when his time was up, Thomas Duda, was escorted away by city marshals.

Before he left, he said he was against the TIF because of its "staggering amount."

"I oppose this TIF because who will benefit will not have to face the consequences," he said, pointing to McKee sitting at a nearby table.

Those in favor of the project cited the need for jobs and the need for development in an area of the city that has seen little growth in recent years.

"North St. Louis deserves its chance to shine, just like Lafayette Square and Soulard and the Central West End," said Cheryl Walker, one speaker before the commission.

Gerald Harsley, who said he has had to send his three children to three different school districts because of his dissatisfaction with the city schools, said he is tired of waiting for improvements to come to the north side. "If we don't act now," he said, "nothing from nothing leaves nothing."

But others said they did not believe the rosy projections from McKee or the way he has acquired property.

"I think it's not feasible," said Keith Marquard, "and I think it will be an economic disaster for the city of St. Louis."

Anna Ialeggio put her opposition this way: "I don't think the ends justify the means, and I think the means have been reprehensible."

Still others were noncommital, depending on whether their concerns are addressed.

"We are in favor of this plan if we can be sure that all protections are in place for people in need," said the Rev. Ronald Bobo of the West Side Missionary Baptist Church. "We need development. We also need to make sure our people are taken care of."

Added Thirplis Williams:

"I've stayed for over 20 years, with gangs and drugs and crackheads. I want to see it improve. But I don't want to see the north side caught in one of these traps where we spend tax money and end up going nowhere." 

After the public was allowed to speak, the aldermen whose wards would be most affected also addressed the commission.

April Ford-Griffin of the 5th Ward noted how the plan had changed in response to community concerns, adding: "When people ask do I trust Paul McKee, I don't have to trust Paul McKee. This is business. This is about getting something for your community. That's why we put it in writing.

"Don't tell me we don't need anything. We are not OK the way we are."

That sentiment was echoed by Alderman Marlene Davis of the 19th Ward, who said:

"If we don't try something different, if we don't go large, we will lose the entire North Side."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.