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St. Charles County confronts the pluses, minuses of its rapid growth

To grasp St. Charles County’s dramatic growth, one only needs to view two photos taken 47 years apart by Jim Karll.

Both show Highway K in O’Fallon, just south of Interstate 70. The first photo, taken in 1970, shows a remote road amid farmland and woods. In the second, Highway K is packed with traffic and flanked by shopping centers and businesses.

St. Charles County’s population skyrocketed from 90,000 in 1970 to almost 400,000 today — a pace unmatched anywhere else in the state. It also has the second-largest bloc of GOP voters in the state and attracts lots of businesses. But a few things threaten its upward trajectory, namely public transportation and a lack of diversity.

The county is a favorite stop for Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, who grew up across the Missouri River in Maryland Heights.

“St. Charles County has the third largest contribution to Missouri’s economy of any county in the state of Missouri, and we want to see more of this here in Missouri,” he said a recent visit to an aerospace-parts manufacturing company.

In seven years, the county has added almost 24,000 new jobs, many in aerospace or health care or at the expanded GM auto plant in Wentzville.

Greitens’ efforts to highlight the county as a symbol of his economic wish-list are welcomed by longtime St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann, who believes county government has helped spur prosperity by taking a hands-off approach.

“I would love, as county executive, to take credit for it,” said Ehlmann, who has been in office 12 years. “But you know county government: We basically keep taxes low, and we stay out of the way.”

The county relies heavily on sales taxes to make its payroll and cover operations, having shuttled most of its property tax in 2015. It also imposes no utility tax and charges only a minimal “merchant’s license’’ on businesses.

St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann.
Credit Provided
St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann.

Ehlmann notes the county doesn’t offer any financial incentives to entice new businesses — and it obviously doesn’t need to.

Republicans hold the cards

When it comes to politics, there’s no dispute that in St. Charles County, the GOP is in charge. Republicans occupy both of the county’s state Senate seats, its 12 posts in the Missouri House and all seven seats on the county council.

Strong support in St. Charles County is now a “must’’ for any Republican running for statewide office. In the November election, the county hit another milestone when its GOP vote tallies outpaced everyone else in the state except for St. Louis County.

Former state Rep. Carl Bearden, a conservative activist who lives in St. Charles County, fears that such success is making county GOP leaders too complacent.

“I’m not sure that St. Charles County exercises all of its political muscle that it could,” he said. “We try to be good regional players. I think the mistake that we sometimes make is we submit to things that may not be as good for St Charles County, and maybe for the whole region. And we need to balance that out.”


Change afoot?

The county’s Democratic activists admit they’re outnumbered, but aren’t demoralized. Some, like Democratic committeewoman Brandi Hayes, believe the county’s demographics are on their side.

“I think people have that preconceived notion that St. Charles is incredibly red,” said Hayes, who noted she ran across a surprising number of sympathetic voters during her door-to-door canvassing last year. “With the younger people, it’s definitely not the case.”

At 34, Hayes is among the 30-somethings who’ll be tasked with reshaping St. Charles County.

“I’m a member of the LGBT community and it’s been a big battle to get our legislators to understand that we need equal protections under the law,” she said.

The county also suffers from a lack of racial or ethnic diversity: About 88 percent of the county’s residents are white, with the rest almost evenly split among African-Americans, Asians and Hispanics.

“In terms of diversity and inclusion, that’s one area where we always have challenges in St. Charles County,’’ according to Ed Bryant, a vice president with the United Way of Greater St. Louis.

Bryant is African-American and has lived in the county for 17 years. He’s a fan of the county’s affordable housing, good schools and parks — assets he said are attracting other minorities with the means.

“We want the same things that anybody else wants,” Bryant said. “So we want more home for our money, we want safe neighborhoods, all those types of things.”

Gabriela Ramirez-Arellano co-owns a Mexican restaurant in O'Fallon with her family. She says when her family first moved to St. Charles County, she had to be the family translator.
Credit Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Gabriela Ramirez-Arellano co-owns a Mexican restaurant in O'Fallon with her family. She says when her family first moved to St. Charles County, she had to be the family translator.

Hispanics, in particular, are making their mark. The most recent Census figures in 2012 show that St. Charles County had the sharpest increase in Hispanic-owned businesses in the state.

Gabriela Ramirez-Arellano co-owns one of them, Don Emiliano's Restaurante Mexicano, in O'Fallon, and is a business counselor for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis. She first came to St. Charles County as a teenager in 1985, when her father took a job at the GM plant.

“I was the family translator, so I got a lot of the looks and the comments about, ‘This is America, speak English,’” Ramirez-Arellano said. “Now that I’ve come back as an adult, I personally don’t get that anymore. But my mother does.”

Credit Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Jessica Anahi Garcia Mendoza and Victor Arellano serve customers at Don Emiliano's Restaurante Mexicano in O'Fallon.

And as St. Charles County’s most recent wave of residents ages, civic leaders are scrambling to attract more young people, Chamber of Commerce President Scott Tate said. That means the county’s residents will need to welcome diversity and accommodate different housing needs, because many younger, would-be residents don’t want — or can’t afford — the 2,500-square-foot houses found throughout the county’s suburbs, Tate said.

“We’re looking at the mixed-used developments in New Town,’’ Tate said, referring to the urban-look, “planned community’’ in St. Charles that features townhouses, small lakes and public spaces.

“Higher density, they have businesses, walkability” he said. “We’re looking at walkability, we feel that’s important.”

Christine Zika lives and works in St. Charles County, said it’s more diverse than it gets credit for.

“The biggest challenge to St. Charles County is to erase its image as being an ‘old and white-only community,’’’ Zika said. “And that challenge will only be met when as a county, we decide to allow mass transit.”

Public transportation’s absence

The debate over public transit goes back decades. St. Charles County voters rejected a proposal in 1996 to become part of the region’s MetroLink system of light rail and buses and increase sales taxes to help pay for it.

More than two decades later, Tate said, there’s no question that the lack of public transportation is a problem for employers.

“With an unemployment rate that’s hovering around 3 percent, a lot of companies have positions that aren’t able to be filled,” Tate said. “And unfortunately we don’t have public transportation necessary to bring people across from the St. Louis County side of the river.”

Kara Gatto owns Liviaria, a lingerie firm that's based in St. Charles.
Credit Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Kara Gatto owns Liviaria, a lingerie firm that's based in St. Charles.

To entice skilled workers, businesswoman Kara Gatto provides a transportation stipend to her employees.

Gatto started her up-and-coming lingerie firm Liviara about two years ago. The expensive bras and corsets are manufactured in the company’s three-story building near the St. Charles riverfront. The company, which sells its products online, landed national attention this year whenBeyoncewore a Liviara piece in her photo announcing she was pregnant.

One of the bras produced by Liviara
Credit Jo Mannies/St. Louis Public Radio
One of the bras produced by Liviara

Gatto grew up in St. Charles County and returned after years in bigger cities. She weighed setting up shop in downtown St. Louis, but ultimately decided her hometown was the best place to pursue her passion for fashion. Among the advantages? She lives just minutes from the office. 

“It’s important to be part of the community you live in,” Gatto said. “We can employ people here, which is really important to me. I mean, when you go into business, one of my main — and my husband’s main — thoughts is always, ‘Are we improving someone else’s life?’"

Mike Kaiman, a teacher in Wentzville, has lived in St. Charles County for his entire life, so he’s seen the good and bad effects of the county’s rapid growth.

“I know the history of the county and how a lot of people moved here to escape the problems of north St. Louis city and county,’’ the 49-year-old Kaiman said. “But that attitude has solidified into a belief that we out here have nothing to do with the other side of the river.”

He added that St. Charles County’s future as a regional leader hinges on changing that mindset.

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies

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This report was prepared with help from our Public Insight Network. Click here to learn more about how you can be a part of our conversations. Click here to see responses from more PIN sources.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.