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Winning the Decade

Drexel’s Metro Finance head talks to Greater St. Louis CEO about how the Missouri city turned pandemic tragedy into urban prosperity. Hint: It’s all about jobs

Winning the Decade

Drexel’s Metro Finance head talks to Greater St. Louis CEO about how the Missouri city turned pandemic tragedy into urban prosperity. Hint: It’s all about jobs

A consistent focus of this column has been the pandemic and other disruptive forces that have followed in its wake that have the potential to reshuffle the order of successful cities. As I’ve written before: “For cities that are organized, deliberate and purposeful, there is the tantalizing prospect of using this period to leapfrog, diversifying and greening their economies to become more economically resilient, socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable.”

St. Louis may be one of those metropolitan areas.

One of the distinguishing factors of economic development in U.S. cities and metros is the powerful leadership exercised by the private and civic sectors. As Jeremy Nowak and I observed in The New Localism, “The rise of CEO-led general-purpose and special-purpose corporations represents a structural shift in the role of business and civic leaders in U.S. cities.” That has come to the fore during this period of transformative economic restructuring, as the metros that are able to capitalize on this moment, such as Columbus, Syracuse, and St. Louis, have strong, well-resourced, business/civic leadership groups.

As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once quipped, “To build a great city is simple, first create a great university and then wait 200 years”. Applied to this era, there might be a new maxim: “To build a prosperous metropolis, create a durable organization led by anchor corporations and institutions.” Wordy, but accurate.

During the worst days of 2020, a remarkable series of events happened in St. Louis. The community was one of the first to form a structured public-private partnership of leaders of the region’s hospitals, major employers, and public health officials that came together to respond to the pandemic itself — an effort that repeatedly earned national headlines. This inspired leaders to go further.

A group of business, civic and community leaders used the period (and hundreds of zoom calls) to devise a 10-year jobs plan for the metropolis. As the plan took shape, a subset of the leaders took a transformative step: they formed Greater St. Louis, Inc. (GSL), a new business and civic leadership organization created through the merger of five separate organizations – the St. Louis Regional Chamber, Civic Progress (the CEO leadership group that had initiated the 10-year jobs plan), Alliance STL (a recently formed group focused on business attraction), Downtown STL and Arch to Park (which focused on regeneration of the central core, stretching from The Gateway Arch to historic Forest Park).

This is a disruptive time for our country and the world.  The places that navigate through this period will do so because they have civic institutions where issues and interests can be intermediated.

With that, St. Louis had a plan and a powerful organization tasked with implementing it. One of the key individuals at the center of this change is Jason Hall, CEO of Greater St. Louis, Inc. Jason has a resume fit to purpose for the new organization, having served as CEO and Co-Founder of Arch to Park and in leadership roles with the Chamber, Missouri Department of Economic Development and Missouri Technology Corporation. Jason and I have worked closely together, including on the development, promotion and execution of the STL 2030 Jobs Plan, discussed below.

We found some time recently to talk about organizing the business community coming out of the pandemic. Here is an excerpt from our conversation.

Bruce Katz: Could you describe the origins of Greater St. Louis, Inc. and the decision to merge 5 separate organizations?

Jason Hall: Business and civic leaders had grown tired of other metropolitan areas consistently outperforming St. Louis on key metrics of economic growth and prosperity and wanted to make a difference in a place they love.

Several projects had begun to pull leaders and organizations together for collective impact:

  • The Brickline Greenway effort to knit the city back together, building on efforts in Atlanta and elsewhere;
  • The STLMade initiative to market the community’s hidden talents around entrepreneurship, culture, and innovation;
  • The successful effort to keep the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in the city’s core — a mainstay of the national security community that has evolved from the city’s mapping capacities in the era of Lewis & Clark; and
  • The region’s efforts to respond to the shooting of Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson in 2014.

Beyond these disparate efforts, the pandemic revealed the imperative and power of leaders and organizations coming together as one. The virus didn’t respect jurisdictional boundaries or the specific remit of separate organizations.

This forced a central question: what if the level of coordination and collaboration exercised during the pandemic was made structural and permanent?

What then followed was an extraordinary process. The Chairs of the Boards of five economic development organizations began to discuss the structure and governance of a new leadership entity, purposefully building on lessons learned from successful organizations in peer regions.

Ultimately, the idea of a merged organization was taken to the full Boards of the disparate groups and was shaped by their feedback, almost 200 fiduciaries in total! The vote to merge was unanimous, and on January 1, 2021, the new organization came into being.

The formation of GSL played out in the context of developing the STL 2030 Jobs Plan, the first evidence-driven metropolitan economic strategy in over a decade. One of the merged organizations, Civic Progress, had originally commissioned the Plan in the fall of 2020. They enticed Mark Wrighton, the former Chancellor of Washington University, to lead the effort and pull together a team of interested stakeholders. In many respects, the pandemic compelled us to create a jobs plan that put diversity, equity and inclusion at the center of economic growth.

Did you examine other business leadership groups and past local efforts to inform the merger? What did you learn?

We certainly did. We examined efforts in Columbus, Des Moines, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh and spent quality time learning from people like David Johnson, the former head of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership (CICP).

We also took account of the past efforts of city builders in our own city and metropolis. In the early 2000s, former Washington University Chancellor, Dr. Bill Danforth, and John McDonnell, former Chairman of the McDonnell Douglas Corporation, spearheaded an effort around plant and life sciences. Their initiative led to the creation of the Cortex Innovation Community, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, and BioSTL. The results over the past decades illustrate the power of intentional economy shaping that builds on authentic and real assets.

Our research led to the following insights and actions:

  • First, it is critical to get a few business and civic leaders to set a new expectation around commitment and engagement. We were fortunate to have the five organizations chaired by an exceptional group of business leaders who knew each other and shared the same perspective about the need for collaborative action. These individuals included Andy Taylor and David Kemper, Chairs of Arch to Park; Suzanne Sitherwood, Chair of Alliance STL; Warner Baxter, Chair of Civic Progress; Ellen Theroff, Chair of Downtown STL; and Ken Cella, Chair of the Regional Chamber. The collaborative vision of these leaders, both individually and corporate, was essential, particularly because St. Louis doesn’t have a philanthropy with a balance sheet like the Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis or the Heinz Endowments or Hillman Foundation in Pittsburgh.
  • Second, we recognized that the new organization needed to play multiple roles, in close collaboration with elected officials and other civic and community stakeholders. These roles include working on policy, making investments and helping to structure complex transactions with the state and other players. We acknowledge both the distinctive strengths of our region in vertically organized clusters (for example, biosciences and advanced manufacturing) as well as the criticality of investments in cross-cutting strategies for infrastructure, human capital and technology.
  • Finally, we recognized that the power of CICP and other stellar leadership groups is their ability to collaborate and develop serious “relational currency” between different stakeholders. The St. Louis metropolis has often been noted more for what divides us (e.g., state and county lines, deep racial segregation) than what unites us. Getting to a shared vision starts, literally, with meeting people where they are, understanding their motivations and priorities and putting together the complex puzzle that is the reality of the modern metropolis. Sometimes we are in front; sometimes we lead from behind. We always put our heads down, do the work and share credit.

The STL 2030 Jobs Plan recognized the plethora of assets in St Louis. What assets do you think have been emphasized by the pandemic?

Our business and civic leaders have long believed that St. Louis has incredible assets, which were mostly unrecognized and under-leveraged.

Our downtown has a substantial inventory of historic, grand buildings built in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but several of the largest buildings have sat vacant for decades, given the out migration of companies and retail. The pandemic revealed an opportunity for the revival of our downtown, which has underperformed for decades. This traditional underperformance, ironically, may be an asset as many high performing central business districts now grapple with commercial and office vacancies resulting from the explosion of work-from-home options. With downtowns disrupted by the pandemic, we have an unusual opportunity and necessity to reimagine and reinvent this real estate. Our view is that successful downtowns will be more mixed use than in the past and more experiential in their focus.

We are already beginning to actively breathe new life into old buildings, starting with the conversion of the Butler Brothers building (800,000 square feet) to retail space and over 380 residential units. Our next focus is the Railway Exchange building (1 million square feet) which takes up an entire city block in our central business district. These transactions are large, complex and messy and would not be possible without the creative capital stacking of federal, state and local tax incentives and other forms of debt, equity and concessionary capital.

The pandemic, the Wars in Ukraine and Israel/Gaza, and tensions with Iran and China also revealed the imperative of reshoring manufacturing, particularly around critical sectors like pharmaceutical production and defense. Here, St. Louis has strong attributes given its manufacturing prowess (for example, key elements of the COVID vaccine were created and produced here), central location and deep assets around logistics and distribution. The State of Missouri has made a $15 million investment to catalyze the on shoring of pharmaceutical ingredients and semiconductor computer chips and Missouri Technology Corporation (MTC) recently invested another $9.45 million in the API Innovation Center at Cortex, allowing the nonprofit to continue leading reshoring efforts.

St. Louis also has ample assets around military, defense and national security. We are home to Boeing’s production of advanced fighter jets and drones and Boeing recently committed to invest another $1.8 billion to expand in St. Louis County to support new aerospace programs. Scott Air Force Base hosts the United States Transportation Command, responsible for the movement of military personnel and equipment all over the world (most recently, the shipment of weaponry to our allies in Ukraine). And the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency provides world-class geospatial intelligence to inform national policy decisions and provide combat support, utilizing technologies and applications that cut across the defense and civilian realms.

The global reach of St. Louis also involves humanitarian aid. Our central city has been reshaped by the influx of Bosnian refugees in the 1990s. Now we are welcoming refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine. Our community is literally supporting the ability of Afghan families to live in Albania before coming to St. Louis.

To the greatest extent possible, our economic efforts have a strong DEI component baked in. One of our most promising anchor institutions is Harris-Stowe State University, a nationally recognized HBCU. Harris-Stowe is the only HBCU to be a national education partner to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Immersion in geospatial technologies is a path for growing workforce diversity in our region, a vehicle for retaining, growing and attracting firms.

We feel that we have a shot.  We have an invigorated set of business and civic leaders.  We have a plan that is rooted in who we are and the special role we can play.

What have been some of your proudest accomplishments of the past three years?

We successfully advocated for Medicaid expansion in the State of Missouri. We could dedicate an entire conversation to that one issue alone (!), given the political complexity of this necessary act.

After years of not winning a major project, we’ve attracted some serious corporations to St. Louis, including Accenture Federal Services, Performance Foods Group, and Advantage Solutions, totaling over 1,000 new jobs. Last summer we also had ICL break ground on a new $400 million battery materials manufacturing plant in a disinvested area of our city, setting the region up well to be on the cutting edge of the energy transition.

With Lufthansa, we’ve introduced non-stop service from St. Louis to Europe for the first time in 20 years. We’ve further committed to increasing the region’s connectivity through blocking airport privatization and subsequently organizing around a much-needed plan for terminal transformation and expansion to help us compete for the jobs of tomorrow.

In the policy realm, we co-developed The Intern and Apprentice Recruitment Act to bolster talent and recruitment efforts and led a statewide coalition of supporters to get the bill enacted and signed into law in Missouri in August 2023.

We rallied the entire metropolis around one application for the Build Back Better Regional Challenge (BBBRC) in 2021, an initial test of whether this community would buy into one unified vision and embrace inclusive growth rather than fracture and fragment. We importantly focused on a new Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Center (AMIC) located on the northside of the City of St. Louis, the historic center of disinvestment and de-population in our metropolitan area. We were one of 21 winners of the competition out of over 500 total applicants.

After increased urgency for more targeted violent crime deterrence, we, along with the Regional Business Council, released a whitepaper to set the foundation for a data-driven regional crime summit. During the summit, metro leaders agreed to collaborate and participate in a violent crime reduction program and focus specifically on the region’s homicide rate. Crime data from 2023 in the City of St. Louis proved promising with a 21 percent reduction in murders and a 23 percent reduction in shooting victims compared to 2022.

Like many metropolitan areas, we are sports lovers. We are obsessed with the Cardinals and the Blues. With the leadership of Dave Steward, chairman and founder of World Wide Technology, we attracted the NASCAR Cup Series to the St. Louis region. This builds upon the recent effort of the Taylor Family to attract a Major League Soccer expansion franchise to the city, making St. Louis CITY SC the first majority-female founded in league history and one of the first in all of sports.

GSL is thrilled to be one of seven founding anchor institutions of the 39 North AgTech Innovation District, to continue building and championing our region’s agriculture and bioscience assets. Establishing the district as a 501(c)3 allows the region to capitalize on the momentum built by The Donald Danforth Plant Sciences Center, the Helix Center, Bayer Crop Sciences, and others to realize the economic potential of this industry through stimulating breakthrough innovations.

Can you speak more to the Build Back Better win and what AMIC means for St. Louis?

Of the total $25 million the region received from the Build Back Better Regional Challenge, AMIC received $7 million for facility construction, which we were then able to leverage for state, local, and corporate funding. AMIC currently has an additional $15 million from the State of Missouri, $5 million from Boeing, $10M in other private sector commitments, and at least $15 million in New Market Tax Credits from the City of St. Louis. BBBRC gave us the opportunity to organize as a region and build on our core strengths at a time when global and national forces are creating ripe opportunities for former industrial metropolises like St. Louis.

AMIC officially broke ground in late November 2023 with a mission to attract visionary manufacturers and develop skilled workforces required to drive innovation and promote growth. Meeting the demands of this moment will require company- and cluster-led applied R&D, skilled workforce development, and advanced production and prototyping. AMIC uses a sector-agnostic approach to lead and innovate, encouraging cross-pollination and collaboration between industries with the goal of leveraging our strong regional assets to their full capacity. AMIC is modeled after the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Sheffield, U.K., a successful and vibrant hub for applied R&D, startup activity, and skills training. We recently had the honor of hosting Oliver Coppard, the Mayor of South Yorkshire, U.K., to exchange experiences and ideas for intentionally utilizing these centers to further inclusive economic growth.

AMIC is a manifestation of a shift in St. Louis to think more regionally and collaboratively. Regional government, nonprofit, business, and university stakeholders got behind one proposal and spoke with a unified voice. This kind of radical collaboration is enabling us to leverage federal, state, and local funds for long-term equitable growth.

What are your aspirations for St. Louis in the next several years and even decade?

It’s been a remarkable ride since January 2021, to put it mildly. To some extent, our biggest accomplishment has been to get the business community to speak with a unified voice. Our civic infrastructure, frankly, was less than the sum of its parts, pre-merger. The business community is now trying to operate under the rubric, One Voice, One Agenda. We have created one “switchboard” to enable the active and engaged participation of a broad set of stakeholders, with the STL 2030 Jobs Plan as our main narrative and playbook.

Last year we passed the quarter decade mark. This prompted us to dig in and determine how to measure our efforts towards the goals outlined in the STL 2030 Jobs Plan. We worked as a region to build STL 2030 Progress, a suite of tools to benchmark our progress and hold ourselves accountable to inclusive growth targets for the decade.

We have spent decades managing decline and our community is now ready to spur growth. Our aspirations are exceedingly high, forcing us out of our comfort zones. The bottom line is that the St. Louis metropolis must grow in population and gross metropolitan product. But that growth must look different from the past decades. It must benefit more places and more people.

That is a tall order for any metropolis, but particularly for ours, which has been disproportionately affected by racial division.

That’s why a signature part of our STL 2030 Jobs Plan was to “restore the core,” by reversing decades of employment decentralization and the outmigration of firms. The location of two major assets – the new $1.7 billion National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Center – on the city’s northside will be instrumental to overall growth and city specific growth.

We feel that we have a shot. We have an invigorated set of business and civic leaders. We have a plan that is rooted in who we are and the special role we can play.

The benefits from the merger are real. To a large extent, we don’t need to worry about “who gets the credit” anymore. Our bigger concern is which organization is the right one to lead on particular challenges or opportunities.

This is a disruptive time for our country and the world. The places that navigate through this period will do so because they have civic institutions where issues and interests can be intermediated. These institutions are able to act with the agility to solve challenges across sectors on a constant basis. It’s not easy. And it’s often not pretty. But it’s necessary.

Bruce Katz is the Founding Director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab at Drexel University.


Photo via Explore St. Louis

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