Despite all the challenges highlighted by St. Louis Business Journal readers in the AdvanceSTL series, there are a lot of great things happening in St. Louis. In many ways, it feels like we are on the verge of a potential grand slam.
Construction cranes are visible across the horizon. We have recently completed developments from City Foundry to Cortex and so many others. The new National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency complex will provide a much-needed anchor in North St. Louis City to build upon. The St. Louis City SC Major League Soccer team is mere months away from playing its first home opener in its impressive new stadium. There’s the jaw-dropping $1.2 billion development planned for south of the Gateway Arch grounds that promises to completely transform 80 acres with entertainment, offices, residential homes and a vibrant river port.
Our region will also soon be flush with cash, with $498 million from the federal government in pandemic relief headed toward St. Louis City and $790 million from the Los Angeles Rams and NFL lawsuit awarded to the St. Louis City, St. Louis County and the owners of the Ram’s old stadium.
This is only a partial list of the dizzying number of developments and wins in just the last few years. It is a testament to the vision of smart, forward-thinking developers and many passionate St. Louisans who are heroically fighting to provide a better future for our region.
This kind of economic and commercial development is absolutely critical for our region’s future. The questions we need to ask are—how do we reconcile all this investment and progress in parts of the region with the large sections of our geography and population that has been left behind? If we only invest in buildings, attractions and amenities and not in our greatest untapped resource—our people—what will be the end result?
The cost of ignoring the human side of the equation
There is an axiom at the heart of our Once and for All effort that succinctly sums up what the effort is all about and why it’s critical we also invest in our under-resourced communities and people: A region can only progress so far while leaving so many of its people and communities behind.
Think about it. It’s difficult for any region to grow and blossom if a large portion of its population and geography exist in a perpetual state of decline. The data bears this out. Research from Washington University in St. Louis, University of Missouri-St. Louis, Forward Through Ferguson, Greater St. Louis, Inc. and others clearly shows how our region’s high concentrations of poverty in our many predominantly Black, under-resourced communities have reduced the prosperity and well-being of our entire region in multiple ways.
It’s true that economic development creates jobs and many other great things. But it does not create a magical spillover effect that somehow washes away the conditions within our under-resourced communities and their negative impact on the greater region.
Commercial and economic investment is critical. But it’s just one part of the equation. A thriving region needs investment and world-class amenities, but it also needs a population with enough disposable income to support it. It’s not an either/or. It’s an and/and. If we continue to neglect investment in people and communities, we will continue to build on a faulty foundation. And our region’s economy will never be running on all its cylinders.
Immigration will certainly play a vital role in bolstering our region’s population and GDP. But what about the population we currently have? What happens to the people in our predominantly Black, under-resourced communities if we continue to leave them behind?
It is great that companies are focused on creating greater equity and inclusion in our workplaces. But if we truly want greater equity and inclusion, investing strategically in our current population here at home is key. It’s also the key for driving greater prosperity and addressing so many of the social problems that continue to hold this region back.
The cost of not taking the time to understand the problem
As is often said, St. Louis is a generous city. We generously give our money and our time to a staggering number of local nonprofits.
We are not lacking in resources—we are lacking in results. I believe there are several reasons for this. One is that many nonprofits are focused on addressing urgent needs and don’t have the capacity to focus on reducing the amount of need they continually serve.
Another reason is that we often have an imperfect understanding of the complex problems we are trying to solve. Commercial development is complex, but new buildings, attractions and jobs are simple things for people to understand. Addressing poverty, not so much.
Not taking the time to understand complex problems leads to ineffective solutions that waste resources and create little impact. Even worse, it creates a demoralizing fatigue that zaps our collective will and ambition to finally create real change.
This is a shame because so much has been learned on how to transform communities. We will never eradicate poverty. But if we do the right things, we can bring enough people into the economic mainstream to create a tipping point and turn the tide in these communities—and alleviate so many of our complex social challenges along the way.
The cost of repeating the mistakes of the past
Ignoring the human part of the equation in our region’s transformation also puts all our hard work and achievements in serious risk.
We’ve seen this before. At what point does today’s latest development become tomorrow’s St. Louis Galleria? Or Laclede’s Landing?
Our region has desperately needed investment and development. Equally as important, we need a thriving population and more of our communities to be successful so we can support these investments.
As I wrote in my own “Dear Lou” letter in the St. Louis Business Journal, this is a critical window in time. It’s vital that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past so we can knock this one out of the park and clear the bases to finally create a stronger, more equitable and prosperous St. Louis region—once and for all.
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