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State support will help clean up the largest bloc of undeveloped land in St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 3, 2009 - Standing in the midst of the city of St. Louis' largest bloc of undeveloped land, Gov. Jay Nixon joined St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay in announcing a massive -- and long-sought -- cleanup and development plan.

The site is 42 acres near the Mississippi River in deep South St. Louis that for at least a century was the home of a coke-production facility, most recently the Carondelet Coke Corp., which closed in 1988.

Coke is a type of fuel produced by coal; the site also was a large coal-gasification facility. Such processes have heavily contaminated the soil with coal, benzene, asbestos and other dangerous chemicals. That contamination has delayed action for decades. Even now, city officials estimate it will take 12-36 months to clean up the site.

Otis Williams, deputy executive director of the St. Louis Development Corp., pegged the cleanup cost at $7 million, including $200,000 from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The rest will come from the Missouri Department of Economic Development, which announced it "will invest $6.73 million in Brownfield Remediation economic incentives to help clean and remove pollutants and contamination from the area."

The land now is under the control of the city's Land Reutilization Authority, but a private buyer is in the wings: Green Street Broadway Investors LLC plans to purchase the site for about $919,000, city officials say.

An adjacent 12 acres are to be purchased from Laclede Gas Co.

According to Slay aides, the city-owned tract will be sold to Green Street in stages, as it is cleaned up. The overall plan calls for demolishing the existing structures and constructing six new buildings providing about 630,000 square feet in commercial and industrial space.

State economic officials estimate that the plan will create more than 350 jobs. There have been development plans for the site before, most recently in 2006, when Summit Development Group in Clayton proposed creating a $43 million industrial business park. But that plan stalled, like others before it.

But this time, Slay says he's confident the latest proposal will pan out once the contaminated soil is cleaned up. "This site has tremendous potential. It is large with access to highway, river and rail transportation,” Slay said in his prepared remarks. “It has been a vacant eyesore for a long time because of the environmental contamination."

As he talked of his optimism, Slay stood in front of a giant mound of new soil trucked into the site. The clean dirt, he said, came from county and city land along the route of the reconstructed Highway 40.

“Cleaning up this old coal plant will be great for Missouri’s environment and great for our economy,” Nixon said in his statement. “By removing these pollutants and constructing modern buildings, we’ll be transforming this area and creating hundreds of new jobs, both in construction and in the industries that will occupy this site in the future."

Both men praised the other effusively (perhaps to dispel political talk -- and recent articles -- that they are not close, although both are Democrats).

"I’m proud that my administration is playing an important role in this clean-up and revitalization process, and we look forward to working closely with the city of St. Louis in the months to come to make this transformative project a reality," Nixon said. Said Slay: "I want to thank Gov. Nixon and the Department of Economic Development for their vision and commitment to the people of St. Louis."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.