© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: Selling St. Louis: The region and the city can build off the positive

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 29, 2012 - In many European countries, the central government can adjust municipal boundaries, jurisdictional lines and institutions. The U.S. federal system renders that impossible.

In this country, cities are creatures of the state in which they are located. Fifty governments can thus impose their will on cities within their borders. They directly affect primary and secondary education, permit certain forms of taxation and bonding capacity and also make laws regarding boundaries and annexation.

One of the net results has been that cities, by and large, have to raise their own revenues and join in the competition for jobs and residents. Since the end of World War II, that competition has been marked by suburban expansion, the demise of manufacturing, and an increasing minority population.

With the help of federal funding and authorization, cities embraced urban renewal and freeway building. In most cases, these efforts failed to stem a downward spiral. In more recent decades, cities have tried neighborhood revitalization, housing rehabilitation and construction, downtown development and boosts to the tourist industry. The results have been mixed. There are some success stories but the competition continues, with other cities and with a city’s own suburbs. And the suburbs compete with each other as well.

St. Louis has certainly seen its share of renewal and various kinds of redevelopment. Regrettably, its failure has been judged by one measure: its population size.

The decline in number of residents has been dramatic but the city has seen successes on other levels. St. Louis has a strong neighborhood base, which strengthens the city’s fabric. It also has a significant number of integrated neighborhoods. In addition, rebirths can be found in neighborhoods and their commercial areas. The Loop clearly extends into the city now, and a once fairly desolate stretch of Morganford south of Tower Grove Park now has restaurants and a grocery. New housing is bringing the West End back to life just north of Delmar.

Despite any number of positives, the mood in the St. Louis area is frequently pessimistic. Nirvana is not around the corner but there are steps the region and the city can take to build off the positive.

First would be enhancing cooperation rather than competition among ourselves. New commerce or industry benefits the whole. Try to expand what is working. Cultivate the appropriate workforce. Too often, the students at area colleges and universities take their talents to other pastures. Keeping those with needed skills should be an important goal.

Similarly, immigration to city and region should be encouraged. Immigration has added to a positive trajectory in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and New York City. St. Louis has been enriched by an influx of Russian Jews and then Bosnians.

These arrivals brought about new restaurants, bakeries and markets. We see a notable Mexican community in the Cherokee area; Lebanese and Turkish dining as well as Ethiopian fare. Indian restaurants have appeared in city and county. The diversity of cuisine is healthy for the local palate and the local economy.

We are also seeing immigrants with higher levels of skills who can compete in the global economy.  Immigrants also offset population declines in city and county.

Diversity thus provides positives for the St. Louis region.

So does enhancement of education at all levels. A prepared workforce can help to attract employers.

So can a high quality of life. The arts and sports venues help to sell the region. St. Louis is no longer one of the nation’s largest cities but its attractions rank very highly. The symphony orchestra is top tier and the Cardinals are World Series champs. Other music, theater and sports offerings abound.

It’s also a comfortable area and easy to get around. The plethora of lovely parks provides beauty and recreation. And it’s affordable.

Alas, July and August heat and humidity are a drawback for some but has that stopped Atlanta or Houston?

When Ed Rendell became mayor of Philadelphia, he became its greatest salesman. Not only did he extol his city’s attributes to businesses checking out the city, but he sold it to its own residents. A few pep talks along those lines could help our region as well.

While pride is important, complacency will breed little success. Efforts to encourage cooperation across jurisdictions in economic development need to be encouraged. Retaining the talented and soliciting the immigrant are important components, too. The competition among cities for jobs and residents will not cease. St. Louis has to build on its strengths and continue to open itself to a rapidly changing world.

Lana Stein is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She is the author of several books and journal articles about urban politics, political behavior and bureaucracy.