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Commentary: The gradual growth of regionalism

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 14, 2009 - Because St. Louis has so many local governments, because all major consolidation attempts over the past 80 years have failed at the ballot box or in the courts, and because the conventional wisdom among most civic leaders and the local media has been to decry localism, St. Louis itself and the more extended metropolitan governance reform community have made the area the poster region for fragmentation.

It's a bum rap.

Although St. Louis does have more municipalities per capita than any other major region, since 1950 the number has remained about the same even with a million-plus additional residents. And, more significantly, the region has steadily increased the number of inter-county governance agreements -- averaging about one every two years -- over the past half century.

Cooperation has involved many services and taken diverse forms.

The services include sanitary and solid waste (e.g., Metropolitan Sewer District), education (e.g., Cooperating School Districts), cultural institutions (e.g., Zoo-Museum District), the arts (e.g., Regional Arts Commission), transportation (e.g., Metro), public safety (e.g., Regional Justice Information System), tourism (e.g., Convention and Visitors Commission), parks and open space (e.g., Great Rivers Greenway), sports venues (e.g., Edward Jones Dome), economic development (e.g., Greater St. Louis Economic Development Council) and health care for the indigent (e.g., St. Louis Connect Care).

The forms include public authorities, special purpose districts, intergovernmental agreements, cooperative arrangements and umbrella organizations.

Most of these ventures, especially the earlier ones, involved just the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County. Why has the more affluent and larger St. Louis County repeatedly joined with the poorer and smaller city for all these services?

Partially because of enlightened self-interest explicitly acknowledged by every county executive from Lawrence Roos in the 1960s to Charlie Dooley in 2009. Partially because of civic leadership pressure for the county to do its "fair share" for the region. Partially, and perhaps more subtly, because of the county's growing desire to be seen as the prevailing regional player rather than being second banana to the city's elected leadership who still receive more media attention.

Gradually but steadily, the St. Louis area has learned how to be regional.

For example, Lambert International Airport is located in St. Louis County but is owned by the City of St. Louis. In the 1980s, the city acknowledged the county's take by giving it representation on the airport's board. In the 1990s, recognizing that landing patterns affect St. Charles County to the west, it gave that jurisdiction a board seat.

Crises, real or manufactured, have also helped.

  • Lose a National Football League franchise to Phoenix (the Cardinals) and, in response, build a venue (Edward Jones Dome) to attract another one (the Rams).
  • When post-Cold War defense cuts generate massive layoffs at McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing), create a Greater St. Louis Economic Development Council to design a coordinated economic development strategy.
  • Fall behind in the race for conventioneers, combine efforts and increase marketing funding through a joint Convention and Visitors Commission.

Localism is what makes the St. Louis area cozy and special. Ask residents what they like best about the region and the most common response is "small town feel with cosmopolitan amenities." One obvious way to create a "small town feel" is to have numerous municipalities. Its Jeffersonian keep-government-close-to-the-people resonates well.
But localism and regionalism are not antonyms dueling with one another. Rather they are forces to be balanced, maintaining one (the local) while strengthening the other (the regional). Clearly there is more work yet to be done on the regional side but, as those efforts proceed, the area needs to appreciate how much it has accomplished during the past half century.

Terry Jones is professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of "Fragmented by Design: Why St. Louis Has So Many Governments." This essay is based on a chapter (“Moving Toward Regionalism Incrementally: The St. Louis Case”) by Terry Jones and Don Phares in "Governing Metropolitan Regions in the 21st Century," edited by Phares and published this year by M.E. Sharpe.