‘Are we a community on the rise?’ Next St. Louis mayor will set direction for region’s economy

St. Louis Post Dispatch

ST. LOUIS — Economic development in St. Louis is at a crossroads.

The city’s powerful development chief is retiring. The central corridor is finally a self-sustaining growth engine. City leaders want to refocus development on the most impoverished neighborhoods. And the region’s business and civic community has a reinvigorated interest in its urban core.

Public-private partnerships helped revitalize Detroit, said Alderman Cara Spencer, 20th Ward. Business leaders here have already invested hundreds of millions of dollars revamping the Gateway Mall, from the Arch grounds to the under-construction Major League Soccer stadium. She hopes they can organize now around such shared regional goals as strengthening the rest of the city.

“We have a business community that wants to invest,” Spencer said. “It’s the mayor’s job to set the table to convene those stakeholders in a constructive manner.”

The new plan

Two of the four mayoral candidates applauded SLDC’s new direction, mapped out in the 400-page “Equitable Economic Development” plan.

“I really like the shift to focusing on neighborhood development,” said Spencer. Investment in the Gravois Park and Dutchtown neighborhoods she represents has increased in recent years as she and other neighborhood groups focused resources there, she said. “I know the model works, and I’m excited to take it citywide.”

Spencer said city leaders need to concentrate resources on a few high-need neighborhoods outside of the central corridor while also working to stabilize downtown, which has been hammered by a pandemic that has kept thousands of white collar office workers home and threatens to fundamentally change the nature of employment districts.

“We can’t have a successful region without a successful downtown,” she said. “That is going to have to be a key strategy of stabilizing the city.”

Paying for redevelopment

None of SLDC’s budget now comes from general revenue. It relies instead on fees from development incentives, tax credits and federal grants.

SLDC leaders say more staffing — likely paid for via general revenue — would better equip the agency to assemble sites, recruit developers and spur redevelopment in rough neighborhoods.

It’s something Spencer has brought up before. One of SLDC’s key functions is vetting and negotiating tax abatement and other incentive requests from developers. Because the fees from those projects largely fund the agency, a perverse incentive exists when SLDC is negotiating with developers, Spencer said. She’d like to see general revenue fund a portion of the agency’s budget so it’s not too beholden to development fees.

“I have been calling for a revisioning of how we fund SLDC for years,” Spencer said. “The current structure where SLDC is funded exclusively from developer fees is problematic.”

Regional role

Still, the four candidates agreed that the next mayor must redefine the city’s narrative.

Spencer called Greater St. Louis “an incredible opportunity to organize the business community.” She said she’s “very hopeful” about Hall’s leadership and the opportunity to attract further support from the corporate community.

The candidates on economic development

Topic Andrew Jones Tishaura Jones Lewis Reed Cara Spencer
Value of new economic study? More study and analysis needed Not much new learned Essential that new mayor follows Good roadmap for neighborhood development
Fund SLDC with general revenue? Bring office under city control Need to analyze budget first Supportive of additional funding Revenue structure based on feeds is problematic
Regional role? St. Louis needs to step up as regional leader Build stronger relationships with Metro East, St. Louis County Change narrative of citu “Set the table” to convene civic, business leaders
Big idea? Promote job training Revisit north-south MetroLink line Build new broadband infrastructure in north St. Louis Focus on a few high-need neighborhoods while also stabilizing downtown

 

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