By strategic investment, St. Louis can become urban core we need

Ortbals Headshot 1 1 16By ALAN J. ORTBALS
    St. Louis made big news in the world of professional soccer a couple of months ago when the Taylor family of Enterprise Holdings, the top car rental company in the world, and Jim Kavanaugh, co-founder and CEO of World Wide Technology, announced their bid to build a $250 million soccer stadium in Downtown St. Louis and pursue a MLS expansion franchise.
    In professional sports, money talks and the combination of private funding for the stadium and the kind of cache that the Taylor and Kavanaugh names carry I think vaults St. Louis to the head of the line for the next MLS team.
    Not to count my chickens too soon but I think this is great news for the St. Louis region and I’m sure it will attract soccer fans from throughout the metropolitan area who will come to Downtown St. Louis for a game and possibly a meal and a few drinks before or after.
    However, it won’t do anything to solve the very serious problems the city has with blight, poverty and crime. To do that, the city needs to attract businesses that can provide jobs and rebuild its tax base.
    Last summer, Mayor Lyda Krewson released A Plan to Reduce Vacant Lots and Buildings in the City of St. Louis. According to that document, there are approximately 25,000 vacant properties in the city, including more than 7,600 vacant buildings. Nearly half of these vacant properties are owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority. It has an inventory of 11,500 properties, one of which it has held for more than 30 years. And this doesn’t include the 250 acres that Paul McKee has under control.
    The mayor’s plan would combat this vacancy problem by focusing on five main principles: organizing and utilizing data; reducing the number of properties in LRA’s inventory; increasing code enforcement; allocating more money for demolitions; and, developing alternative stabilization, demolition and maintenance practices.
    What that means in practice is that the city wants to: get a better handle on just what they have; clear titles; seek homebuyers who will rehab the best of the bunch; demolish the rest and look to get neighbors to take over maintenance of vacant lots through a “Mow to Own” program. This would be fine, I guess, if you were talking about a small number of scattered lots and vacant buildings but, as the above numbers indicate, this is a problem on a gigantic scale. It calls for a massive response, not a piecemeal approach.
    One of the reasons I was such a strong advocate for the Scott Air Force Base site for the NGA, is that the NGA will have little impact on north St. Louis despite it’s nearly $2 billion price tag. While 3,000 people work at the agency, I suspect very few live near the North Jefferson site. Instead, they are scattered throughout the metro area and, I’m sure, will remain so.
    What the city needs instead is private companies that will hire neighborhood people, generating demand for housing and rebuilding the city’s tax base. To do that the city has to be aggressive.
    Its focus on these thousands of vacant properties should be on assembling them into large tracts similar to the property the city put together for the NGA. The city should then clear and clean those sites so they are shovel-ready. It took more than a year and $20 million to get the NGA site ready for construction. You have the luxury of time with a government agency like that. Not so with the private sector. For-profit businesses want to move quickly. That’s why you see spec buildings going up repeatedly in Gateway Commerce Center. Time is money and if you don’t have what they want, they’ll go elsewhere to get it.
    The city needs to work strategically, selecting properties with the greatest commercial appeal. Assemble and prepare multiple sites for business development as well as surrounding properties for the construction of workforce housing.
    As the NGA project has shown us, this would be expensive but the city has assets that could be put to better use in this strategic initiative.
    For example, the city is currently considering privatizing the airport and estimates of how much the city could realize from doing so begin at $2.5 billion and go up from there. The city’s water and trash services should also be candidates for privatization.
    The city of St. Louis is the core of the metro area and its health is vital to the entire region. By converting these physical assets into cash and strategically investing in real estate, it can become the core that we all want and need.
    Alan J. Ortbals is president and publisher of the Illinois Business Journal. He can be reached at [email protected] or (618) 659-1997.

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