By ALAN J. ORTBALS
My wife and I have traveled to Portland, Ore., many times over the years, and I am always struck at how vibrant its downtown is. There is more activity in Downtown Portland on a Sunday morning than in Downtown St. Louis on a Friday afternoon.
Not only does Downtown Portland boast big name retail stores like Nordstrom, Luis Vuitton and Tiffany, it’s chock full of small local shops, bars, restaurants, art galleries museums and movie theaters. Keep in mind that metro Portland’s population is about 22 percent smaller than metro St. Louis.
But Portland is not the outlier. St. Louis is. As detailed in a recent article by the St. Louis Business Journal, while companies and jobs are moving to downtowns across the country, Downtown St. Louis’s office market is the weakest in the metro area with a vacancy rate approaching 20 percent and rent rates well below the regional average. Employment numbers have been flat since 2002.
Entire, huge buildings like the ATT Tower sit vacant, unable to attract tenants. Now it’s being auctioned to the highest bidder.
I think there are two, fundamental reasons for the weakness of Downtown St. Louis. One is Clayton. The other is Illinois.
Prior to 1876, Downtown St. Louis was the governmental and legal center of St. Louis County. What we now call The Old Courthouse was built in 1843 as the St. Louis County courthouse.
But that all changed as a result of the Great Divorce of 1876 when St. Louis City split away from St. Louis County. When that occurred, it was necessary for the county to create a new center of government and law and it was decided to locate that center on land donated by Ralph Clayton and Martin Hanley in what is now Downtown Clayton.
The Great Divorce then created a new node of activity that became more and more important as the population grew beyond the city’s border. Because Downtown Clayton was the governmental and legal center of the growing county, it also became the center of business and employment. Today, metro St. Louis has two Downtowns, one east of Jefferson and the other west of Big Bend.
Perhaps, if the Great Divorce had never taken place, much of what is now in downtown Clayton would have been located instead in Downtown St. Louis. How much more vibrant would Downtown St. Louis be if all of those banks, law firms, real estate companies, accounting firms and wealth managers, etc. were housed there? I think you could make a case that not only would Downtown St. Louis be very different but that Metro West would be far more successful.
The other problem, though, is Illinois.
Metro East has never been fully integrated into metro St. Louis. It’s seen more as an appendage by those on the Missouri side rather than an equal member of the family. And because Missourians have never had much interest in the Illinois side and certainly would never consider moving there, Downtown St. Louis has found itself on the far eastern edge of what many Missourians think of as the region. This is exemplified by maps of the so-called region displayed from time to time in other publications showing the Mississippi River on the right side of the page.
The Illinois portion of metro St. Louis has a population of about 650,000 and makes up about 25 percent of the Downtown St. Louis workforce. With a total count of 2.8 million, the metro population is therefore skewed to the west with most of the workforce living west of the city limits and much of the upper echelon west of I-270. If you consider this population pattern, it becomes clear why World Wide Technologies would locate its new headquarters at West Port Plaza and Centene would be building its new headquarters in Clayton.
But, what if Southwestern Illinois was a stronger player in the metro economy with a larger population, providing a larger share of the downtown workforce and with more CEOs calling it home? It would shift the population center more toward Downtown St. Louis and make it a much more attractive place to locate those shiny new HQs.
Many people don’t realize it or acknowledge it, but the city of St. Louis needs a strong Metro East and the Metro East needs a strong city. The continual westward migration hurts both of us and makes the region weaker in the process.
Alan J. Ortbals is president and publisher of the Illinois Business Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (618) 659-1997.
By ALAN J. ORTBALS