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St. Louis hopes to make progress in bein' green

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 5, 2010 - Here are two interesting facts from a new "green economy'' report commissioned by the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association:

-- St. Louis has added 1,000 green jobs in the past two years, despite the recession.

-- The number of green jobs in the region grew 54 percent between 1995 and 2008, while green job growth in California's Silicon Valley was 53 percent during the same time period.

While no one is going to confuse St. Louis with Silicon Valley, Dick Fleming, president of the RCGA, believes those statistics help confirm something he firmly believes: That St. Louis can derive economic benefits from addressing its climate issues - and that the region can be a player in the greening of the U.S. economy.

The statistics are from the "St. Louis Region Green Economy Profile," a first step toward the development of a regional "greenprint" that the RCGA hopes to complete early next year. The greenprint would help develop strategies for improving the region's overall economy while improving environmental quality.

The St. Louis research was commissioned by the RCGA as part of the Climate Prosperity Project, a national initiative established and funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

"Simply stated, the Climate Prosperity Project comes at the issue of climate change from the perspective of how it might represent economic development opportunity and job creation opportunity,'' Fleming said.

The program stresses three areas: the financial savings for business and industries that adopt green practices, the opportunities for growth and expansion in producing green services and products, and the benefits of building a workforce ready to work in green jobs.

St. Louis, Denver, Portland and Silicon Valley were selected to serve as pilot projects for the Climate Prosperity Project.

Fleming said the profile will serve as a baseline to identify the current state of the region's "core green economy," which is defined as products and services that are alternatives to carbon-based energy sources, that conserve the use of energy and natural resources and that reduce pollution and repurpose waste.

"New player on the block"

Even though the report suggests an emerging growth in green jobs, no one is calling St. Louis a green powerhouse: Just 0.6 percent of jobs in the region -- about 9,000 -- are classified as green jobs.

On the other hand, the green jobs segment had a 54 percent expansion rate compared to overall jobs growth of just 4 percent over the same time period.

It's important to understand that geographic regions have different strengths and specializations, said Doug Henton, chairman of Collaborative Economics Inc., the consulting firm that is developing the profiles for the Climate Prosperity Project's four pilot regions.

The firm, which is based in Silicon Valley, recently produced a 50-state analysis of the core green economy for the Pew Charitable Trusts and is applying the same research methodology to the pilot regions.

"I think it's a good news story. I think it shows that this is an area of potential growth,'' said Henton.

Fleming and Henton acknowledge that St. Louis might seem like the odd region out when compared to the other pilot areas.

"I describe St. Louis as the new player on the block in this field, particularly compared to the other three communities that the Rockefeller Brothers Fund has selected,'' Fleming said.

He noted that Derek Douglas, President Barack Obama's special assistant for urban affairs, seemed to be particularly interested in St. Louis during a recent White House briefing on the Climate Prosperity Project.

"He said, 'I want to hear more about St. Louis because if St. Louis is stepping up to this issue, and if there's traction on this issue in a Midwest industrial city, then that's significant nationally because we already expect that of Denver and Portland and Silicon Valley. It's significant to us that a community like St. Louis is beginning to see the potential of this.' ''

Henton said the profile helps to identify potential strengths in existing segments of the region's economy that can be expanded.

While the use of wind and solar energy might be emphasized in Denver or Portland, St. Louis might, instead, be focused on the manufacturing end: producing the components for wind turbines or solar panels.

"I think it opens up the opportunity to think differently about how St. Louis could be a player in the coming green economy,'' Henton said.

An upside for St. Louis

Fleming said that in addition to the green economy profile, the RCGA is working with 60 local companies to save costs by reducing energy cost and consumption through the Green Business Challenge, a partnership with the Missouri Botanical Garden. The RCGA is also partnering with local Workforce Investment Boards in developing green jobs training.

"The encouraging thing that comes out of the study is that we thought we were starting from scratch and, in fact, we have a pretty substantial base on which to build,'' Fleming said.

Fleming said that it is a telling sign that 1,000 green jobs were added during the overall economic downturn. (According to the St. Louis Federal Reserve, 73,500 jobs were lost in the St. Louis area between February 2008 and June 2010.)

"It is primarily a function of the market beginning to respond to what is clearly need and an opportunity,'' Fleming said. "The whole concept is a marketplace concept. It's not about regulation, cap and trade or all the politics everybody's fighting over. It's about how do we deal with what we think is a real challenge but is also an economic opportunity.''

Fleming pointed to the coal industry as an example of how local companies are changing and adapting to environmental concerns and issues in the marketplace.

"We see that for all of the criticism that coal gets, the fact that we have the three largest coal companies in the world headquartered in St. Louis and each are putting millions of dollars into alternative technologies for coal -- we see that as an example of the marketplace, and as the climate issue, as well,'' he said.

Fleming acknowledges a passion for the Climate Prosperity Project, which he chairs nationally.

"Much of this is new to me,'' he said. "By definition we haven't historically focused in depth in this area, but the more I see, the more I'm convinced that this is a tremendous upside opportunity for St. Louis."