The Growth of St Louis despite adversity

The resilience of the St. Louis community is astounding. That’s the one thought that kept coming back to me as I listened to and read about the saga of the Rams’ relocation back to Los Angeles. With all of the great strengths in our region, our future is not going to be dictated by the profit motivation of one billionaire sports owner, nor by his misinformation campaign about the state of the St. Louis economy.

During my 25-year tenure as head of economic development of St. Louis County and as CEO of the St. Louis Development Partnership, I saw numerous rebounds from far more challenging situations than the loss of eight home football games a year. In the early 1990s, we lost 60,000 defense jobs in the region, 27,000 alone from McDonnell Douglas. Yet those who were laid off were committed to staying in St. Louis fighting through that recession and rebuilding their lives and careers right here.

Last decade saw the closure of three automotive plants, losing some 40,000 direct and indirect jobs from the loss of the two Fenton Chrysler plants alone. Yet despite these losses and those related to the Great Recession, St. Louis has slowly but steadily clawed its way back to pre-recession employment levels.

Neither of these comebacks happened without strong regional leadership and collaboration. Our defense adjustment program of the early ’90s used community-wide job retraining, entrepreneurial assistance and development of the World Trade Center to help get people back to work. That effort is still touted by the Pentagon as a model for the nation for its regional collaboration and effectiveness. Government leaders, business associations and civic organizations all supported one effort based on a comprehensive adjustment plan supported by all.

Likewise the response to the recession and auto layoffs prompted a regional response and plan supported by the public and private sectors. Once again out of adversity, St. Louis created a response that resulted in tremendous growth in our entrepreneurial community, acceleration in the plant and life science sectors, development of the Mosaic Project to grow our population and creation of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership. The SLEDP has been a big success, helping to generate thousands of jobs and nearly $2 billion in investment in its first two years of existence.

Even the tragedy in Ferguson, with all of its subsequent revelations about municipal misdeeds and negative national press, did not deter our community from a strong response to help the residents and small businesses in that community and beyond, and to create an aggressive plan to deal with longer-term systemic issues.

The great response from St. Louis to adversity that I have witnessed over two plus decades has been facilitated and led by great regional leadership and collaboration. But the effort to keep the Rams here illustrated a potential dark cloud on the horizon.

St. Louis County is the economic engine of the St. Louis region, and what it leads or participates in is important to everybody. That’s why it was troubling to see that the county did not participate in the financing plan to build a new stadium for the Rams. In addition to the loss of two years of construction jobs, that lack of participation by the county in a major civic initiative sends a potential troubling signal for future regional endeavors. While the NFL may have just moved the goal line again for the governor’s stadium task force, the $100 million gap in the local application was the only noted deficiency by the NFL. St. Louis County could have plugged that gap.

We are indeed a resilient community, and with or without an NFL team, we will continue to progress. But St. Louis needs strong regional leadership that works across political boundaries if we are to succeed long term. And St. Louis County can only be as strong as the overall region. Its leadership needs to realize and act upon that reality.

Denny Coleman is the retired CEO of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership and former chairman of the International Economic Development Council.

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