This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Business Journal.
Bear with me. If you’re reading this, you might be checking to make sure you haven’t found yourself in an alternate universe.
St. Louis is not America’s comeback city in 2022. But if we can get enough of the right heads together on the same page, it’s not out of the realm of possibility in the not-too-distant future.
I believe the headline above and story of how it came to be has a distinct possibility of one day becoming national news.
Forget the details. For now, let’s focus on broad strokes and big picture.
For the St. Louis region in the near future to become a place that is making national headlines for being a city making bold strides forward, how might we reverse engineer the means to make that a reality? What would a solution or effort with that kind of effectiveness look like?
IT WOULD LOOK AND FEEL VERY DIFFERENT THAN ANYTHING WE’VE DONE BEFORE
A solution or initiative that manages to reverse decades of decline and long-entrenched patterns would not be borne from traditional, status quo thinking.
It would have to be bold. It would have to be ambitious. It would not feel like a scaled-up canned food drive. It would not feel like the average civic initiative. It would feel like a moonshot.
Most of all, it would be effective. It would be an effort based on data and research. On learnings from other metro areas on what works and what does not.
It would not be another Band-Aid. Instead, it would recognize that complex, multigenerational problems cannot be solved overnight or through simplistic solutions.
It would be comprehensive in scope but also focused. Instead of continuing to focus on symptoms, it would focus on addressing the actual underlying condition.
IT WOULD BEGIN WITH A SERIES OF REVELATIONS
It’s not as if we haven’t invested in our region. We have invested in upgrades to the Arch grounds, Forest Park and other cultural institutions. We have invested in big developments like City Foundry and upscale high-rise condominiums. We’re investing millions in a bigger and better convention center. We’re building a Major League Soccer stadium. We have a Top Golf. We have a Ferris wheel. Throughout the central corridor, investment is everywhere. All of which is great and needed.
Yet despite all this investment, our region’s longstanding challenges—from our sluggish economy to our troubling crime rates, loss of population in both St. Louis city and county and continued decline in national prominence and ability to compete with other regions for talent and opportunity—remain as formidable as ever.
That’s the first revelation, which leads to the second: We have yet to effectively invest in our greatest untapped resource—our many people and communities that have fallen behind. And that is why, after so many decades, we still struggle with the same old challenges. Forget the severe social ramifications for a minute. From a pure economic standpoint, we are like a V-8 engine running on only four or five of its cylinders.
Investing in people and communities sounds soft. It’s not. For St. Louis, it’s everything. A wealth of research from Washington University in St. Louis, University of Missouri–St. Louis, Forward Through Ferguson, Greater St. Louis Inc. and others show how our region’s high concentration of poverty has impacted the area in a big way for decades, limiting growth, prosperity and well-being.
If we can begin to break this cycle, we will bring more St. Louisans into our economy, more of our region fully online and address many of our complex social problems. But to do that, we would first have to realize what we’ve done in the past has not been effective, and it’s time for a new approach.
BUSINESS WOULD LEAD THE WAY
Like in Detroit, a few prominent business leaders would be the real catalyst to get the ball moving. Because of their stature, others in the business community would follow.
The business community would play a vital role for many reasons. Businesses are an influential force in the region and have a vested interest in its success. These challenges are also too great for government to handle on its own. Given our polarized political climate, business would be able to lead from the center and bring the rest of the region along with it.
Also, business is about accountability and results. A real solution would need to provide actual return on investment for the greater region.
IT WOULD BE ALL OF THIS AND MORE
The 30,000-foot view is important, but details are everything—and it’s impossible to cover them all in a single article. I believe there is a real solution to move our region forward.
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