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Mayoral candidates see different paths to development

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 25, 2013 - When ground was broken at last for Ballpark Village earlier this month, the list of long-delayed big projects for St. Louis shrank by one. But it still has some perennial entries on it.

Two of the biggest projects stuck in neutral are Paul McKee’s vision for 1,500 acres in north St. Louis and the so-called China Hub project to attract more international cargo flights to Lambert Airport, with the corresponding higher foreign business profile for the metropolitan area.

All three candidates for mayor in next month’s Democratic primary – incumbent Francis Slay, aldermanic president Lewis Reed and former alderman Jimmie Matthews – have views on how City Hall can help turn these and other ideas into reality. Their goal may be the same, but their means differ.

Still on the drawing board

After Ballpark Village, the highest profile project still stuck in the planning stage may be Paul McKee’s vision for 1,500 acres in north St. Louis. For $8 billion, over 23 years, he has painted a portrait of thousands of jobs and homes, green space, retail, schools and badly needed new streets, sidewalks and sewers. He likes to portray the large-scale effort as a place where people can live, learn, work, play and pray.

The enterprise would be funded in part with tax credits and tax-increment financing approved by the state and the city.

But the whole plan has been tied up in court over the issue of whether the city’s TIF was issued properly according to requirements under of the law. The Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in November but has yet to issue a ruling.

If McKee wins, his rehab project for the area may move forward; if he doesn’t, he and city officials would have to go back to square one to write a plan that can win over critics and satisfy the legal requirements. In the meantime, he has added the Bottle District north of downtown to his vision, and he has employed a battalion of lobbyists in Jefferson City to try to secure additional state subsidies.

Jefferson City – and elsewhere – has also been the site of action on the China Hub project, which has changed its name and a little bit of its focus but is still dedicated to helping strengthen St. Louis’ role in international trade.

Hub supporters, including Slay, have been actively -- and so far, unsuccessfully -- seeking state tax credits aimed at encouraging developers and shippers to look at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport as a cargo-shipping alternative to Chicago. The hope has been to turn St. Louis into a shipping magnet that links the Midwest to China, South America and elsewhere.

The old Midwest China Hub Commission has dropped the word “China” from its name, and it is now headed by Dan Mehan, CEO of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The first change is designed to remove what some thought may have been a source of resistance; the second was made to put someone with a statewide presence in charge.

But the broader goal stays the same. Lambert Airport Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge puts it this way: “Lambert needs cargo, and the state of Missouri needs Lambert.”

Because the city owns the airport, its stake in the project is big. Tax credits can help build more warehouses in the county to move that effort along, and government support can help put the St. Louis push on a more equal footing with trade programs in other countries.

We put questions to the three mayoral candidates on these and other issues; here is what they had to say.

Francis Slay

Do you support the McKee project(s)?

Small, organic development projects matter and are important. My administration supports them, funds them, and helps them. But, given the depth of the disinvestment since World War II, working to attract major new investment should be something everyone can agree on. 

Yes, [McKee’s] vision is big. Yes, there is a chance he will fail. Yes, there is a chance that no one else with money will take the chances he is taking.

He is trying to reverse six decades of suburban flight, disinvestment, racism, and bad policy decisions in a very large area. It is a tall order. 

The public price to rebuild the neglected and abandoned infrastructure -- roads, bridges, sewers, sidewalks, and curbs -- is a high one. But, it will come from new revenue generated from the project itself. It will not hurt anything happening elsewhere in the city. More importantly, what price have we already paid -- and what price have the citizens of the project area already paid? 

If he succeeds, it will mean new housing-- both middle class and low income. It will mean new schools, badly needed jobs and rebuilt, sustainable neighborhoods. He will also create something that is in short supply in the city. Large, clean sites available for new development. 

Will he succeed? I can’t guarantee it. But, if he does, thousands of people -- almost all of them now living in North St. Louis -- will succeed with him. 

Do you believe the McKee TIF met requirements of state law?


What new tools does the city need to jump-start development?

We are thinking more strategically than that. We want to create a great place to grow a business, create jobs, and succeed. That means talent, immigration, economic inclusion, tax policy, sustainability, place and the airport. 

The city has made important progress in attracting new industries, like the life sciences, that will employ our children.

We are investing in small businesses and entrepreneurs. We have removed enough barriers to be called one of the country’s best places to start a small business.

We can help ourselves by increasing the number of college graduates, increasing immigration and racial inclusion in the workforce, attracting more flights at Lambert, and investing even more in small businesses. So, one of the most important tools, to use your parlance, would be a fund to invest in startups when they are ready to take a product or service to market. We need a change in the law to allow smart, educated immigrants to stay in St. Louis after they graduate from college. We need a fund to help small minority owned businesses grow and prosper, and mentors to help them to improve their business management skills. 

Economic development used to be about location, location, location. Now, it is about talent, talent, talent. Places with the most talent will see their economies boom. So, adding to the vitality of urban living and creating neighborhoods where people can live, work and play will attract more college graduates. It is working. St. Louis ranked second for attracting college grads to its urban core. That means we need to preserve the state historic tax credit. We need to make transportation investments that look to the future. That means state money for transit. 

Entrepreneurs and small businesses are also central to our future. They are growing here, and St. Louis has a growing reputation as a place where small businesses innovate. We are working regionally and within the city to support new initiatives that provide support for small, emerging businesses. That includes Arch Grants, BioSTLand BioGenerator, Capital Innovators and T-REx. But, we need a fund to take them to the next level.

A number of our city residents want to work. They are willing to show up on time, and they are reliable. But, they may lack knowledge needed for skilled jobs. Often, that is math. We must provide them with and they need to take advantage of the remedial education for the knowledge needed for skilled jobs. 

What would you do to help the airport improve? How important is the China Hub to the city’s economic future?

We all know Lambert Airport isn’t what it was when TWA was in its heyday. But, we are focused on making it the economic engine we need it to be. 

To make things tougher, Lambert has a lot of debt taken on when the new runway was built. 

So, what are we doing? We are aggressively going after airlines to add flights. And, we have been successful. 

We have made investments to make the airport look better, and to improve the customer experience. If you haven’t seen it in a while, you will be very pleasantly surprised at how great it looks. 

If we are going to get even more flights, Lambert must either reduce its costs or increase its revenues to bring down landing fees. 

We are also pursuing international cargo. St. Louis is at the center of everything. We have good ground transportation. The airport has air capacity, and there is plenty of real estate available nearby for companies that move cargo. Other countries recognize St. Louis’s advantages. International cargo lines up a niche in the world economy with St. Louis’ strengths. 

To get it started, we are pushing state legislation to provide incentives for the people who move international cargo to do it here in St. Louis. 

Cargo would raise revenues at the airport, which would allow us to lower landing fees and get more flights. 

Which projects help the city more, ones in neighborhoods or big ones like Ballpark Village?

Both. St. Louis has unique neighborhoods with walkable amenities and great neighborhood businesses. What happened in Soulard, Lafayette Square, and what is happening in Old North, South Grand and other places offers a lifestyle that people want. It makes St. Louis interesting and unique. We would be nothing without our great neighborhoods. They improved organically. So, we need to continue to make that possible.

But, larger projects have a place too. The most important one is CityArchRiver 2015. The Arch is the symbol of St. Louis. It is part of who we are. It is also one of the great structures of the world. But, it is disconnected from the rest of downtown and from the Mississippi River. The grounds and museum are tired and uninspiring.

If we want a great riverfront, we need to make the Arch grounds great. If we want to be connected to the riverfront, we need to knock down the barriers. 

We are already getting started. We have received a $20-million federal grant to build a park over Memorial Drive and I-70 to connect Downtown to the Arch grounds. The plan calls for tearing down the Metro garage to the east to create a welcoming entrance from the Eads Bridge and Laclede’s Landing. 

In April, voters will consider increasing the sales tax to match millions of dollars in private money for this project. It is an investment that will pay many returns.

CityArchRiver will be as big a contribution to future generations as the Arch was to us.  

Lewis Reed

Do you support Paul McKee's project?

With the current mayor recently selling McKee over 1,000 city-owned parcels, for the sake of those citizens in that area we have to find a way that makes it work but that also involves them as a community because we have to have the community’s support. It seems it’s going to have to involve more developers revitalizing smaller portions of the entire area.

What new tools does the city need to jumpstart development?

As mayor I would provide more opportunity for small business loans aimed at funding the development of owner occupied commercial spaces. We have a policy brief that has been released regarding instituting a small business loan "linked deposit" program that will incentivize certain banks that the city uses as depositories of city funds to agree to lend 50 percent of the total funds on deposit to small businesses. This would be at no risk to our funds on deposit.

We also need to make the best use of the tools we have at our disposal. The five-year consolidated plan we submit to HUD in 2014 is going to be crucial to the future of development in St. Louis.

How important is the China Hub to the city’s economic future?

The China hub would have been great (and I’m not sure how close or far away we are from realizing it), but the airport should also be exploring other options for encouraging foreign investment in St. Louis and the development of international airport operations. 

Which projects help the city more, ones in neighborhoods or big ones like Ballpark Village?

If they are successful, both help but in different ways. Neighborhood projects, by their nature, definitely have a more direct measurable value to the neighborhood that they are in and the residents of that neighborhood, although those benefits may not go much further than that neighborhood. Large projects, when successful, bring in lots of tax revenue that can be spread around throughout the city, but they can have a tendency not to reach a measurable level in the more disinvested portions of the city, and we can’t expect big projects to trickle down and make up for major disinvestment.

The development policy must be balanced between the two and focused on bringing all neighborhoods up to at least an acceptable level. Which I don’t believe is the focus of the current administration. 

What would you do to help the airport improve?

First, we need a detailed assessment of what makes us less competitive than other airports. We hear a lot about landing fees, but we need to look at all of our drawbacks and then present a real plan to address them and put us on a more competitive playing field.

Look at successful airports across the country similarly situated in geography as St. Louis. Look at what they did to be successful, accept and move on from the opportunities that we have officially missed, determine what areas of growth are still or soon to be out there, and focus on capitalizing on those growth areas.

Jimmie Matthews

His view of McKee’s plans for north St. Louis is short and sweet:

“I’m against the McKee project. It’s a giveaway project for the rich.”

Instead of one massive effort to redevelop the city’s north side, Matthews would like to see it broken up into smaller projects that could be handled by a number of developers.

“We can have a construction management type of thing,” he said, “where we have a contractor develop various segments that would include people in the community involved in building the projects, so we have a multi-faceted development where everybody in the city of St. Louis who is qualified is part of the development . That would jump start our economic development.

“We need people to build the city, and we have people in the city who can do so.”

Asked whether the city should concentrate on big plans for downtown or smaller plans in the neighborhoods, Matthews said it needs to pay attention to both.

Does the city need any more tools to put development on a faster track?

“The only tool you need,” he said, “is a leader who has a vision, faith, integrity and wisdom -- and that’s me.

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.