Q&A with Tom Chulick, acting president and CEO, St. Louis Regional Chamber
IBJ: What is your professional background?
Chulick: I was chairman and CEO of UMB bank for Saint Louis. I retired in February of 2017 but I flunked retirement. I was involved in some for-profit boards and some not-for-profit boards and was fairly busy with those things but I got a phone call last spring asking me if I would come in and take over as acting CEO and president of the St. Louis Regional Chamber. I had been on the board for 10 years and I approached it as a civic obligation. So, since March I’ve been the acting president and CEO. We have a terrific team here — very professional; very purpose-driven and very passionate about what they do.
IBJ: Why did they call on you to take the job?
Chulick: They felt that the chamber had lost its way a little bit over the last several years where the strategy had gotten very broad and a little fuzzy. I thought we should narrow our swim lanes and be laser focused on two things — economic development and workforce — and do them really well. We have a lot of great assets but a lot of business leaders felt that we weren’t growing at the same pace as some of our peers and that’s true. They felt our workforce has great elements to it but it wasn’t growing as fast as our peers’.
IBJ: How do you envision economic development?
Chulick: One part of it is, how can we help existing businesses deploy their strategies to grow? And then, the other part that’s incumbent upon the St. Louis Regional Chamber is, how do we attract more businesses nationally and globally to our region? One way we do that is by getting more people on the street to meet with more site selectors and more corporate executives to look at how we interact with foreign direct-investment opportunities. Since the spring we’ve built up a pipeline of 89 projects that we are currently working throughout the region. We’re agnostic as to what rivers are crossed or what state a project is in. The site selectors and the corporate executives are going to dictate those parameters. It’s for us to showcase our region; to do it with the best attributes; showing them our best core assets and unique assets as well as how we align our workforce to support their project.
IBJ: Workforce seems to have become the lynchpin of economic development. How can we do better in this regard?
Chulick: As we sit here today there are 20,000 unfilled positions in the St. Louis region. Seventy-five percent of them do not need a college degree. The biggest drivers are health care, financial services, information technology and logistics.
In the short term we need to help people get the certifications they need to fill those jobs. In the long term, population growth is important. Our metro population growth is stagnant. It’s not growing like some of our other peer cities. So that gets us into a lot of things like the need to attract more students to come to our colleges and universities. We have probably more colleges and universities than any other metropolitan area of our size in the country. Once we’ve attracted them, we need to keep them here. A lot of that has to do with lifestyle. Today, lifestyle is the driver of career decisions. If they like an area they figure they’ll move there and find a job. That’s a whole different paradigm than it was just five years ago and I would argue that 3.5 percent unemployment gives you that attitude. That’s the environment we’re working in now.
IBJ: If we’re going to draw people in from outside it seems to me we have to convince young people throughout the country that St. Louis is a hip place that they want to be. How do you do that?
Chulick: I’ll answer a couple of ways. The St. Louis region was recently ranked as the third most favorable startup community in the country. Not everybody’s interested in startups but what that tells you is there’s a vibe here and that’s an important attraction mechanism. Everybody thinks that Silicon Valley is the place for start-ups. Yes, there’s a lot of capital and there’s a lot of money being thrown around there, which is great, but people can’t afford to live there. So, you’re starting to see places like St. Louis as players because they provide an affordable alternative. If you think about how do we attract people, the fact that we’re recognized as a great place for startups is a big deal when you’re looking at the millennial demographic. We’re also recognized as one of the top foodie spots in the country. I think we’re ranked No. 1 or 2 for foodies in the United States. It might not seem like it but these two ratings are somewhat interconnected and that creates a lifestyle vibe that’s attractive to startups and innovation.
IBJ: What is our image across the country?
Chulick: That’s our soft spot right now. The general perception about our region held by people outside of our region is neutral to slightly positive. The general perception about our region held by people who live here is neutral to slightly negative. Professionals in that business say neutral to slightly positive outside of the region is probably a good spot to be because you don’t have to start from scratch.
But we do have problems we need to deal with. First of all is crime and public safety. We have a crime problem. That’s not something the chamber can do anything about. There are other people that are doing that but we have to do a whole lot better job on that.
The second thing is we have to do a better job with our narrative. And right now, we don’t have a cohesive narrative about the region. When you look at the cities that have turned themselves around in terms of population growth, workforce growth and economic development opportunities, one of the things they worked on was developing a clear and cohesive narrative about their region. That’s something we need to do. What’s the story that we can all agree on? What’s the story that we want to tell about our region? We’ve got to do a better job promoting our region.
IBJ: What are some of the positive things you see going on here?
Chulick: The $175 million renovation of the Convention Center is a big thing. That’s the front door that people see when they come into the region and we need to be competitive with all the other regions that are vying for that convention business. And then you look at something like the Major League Soccer project. What does that tell you? To me it goes beyond just having a team in a stadium. What it tells our people and people all across the country is that we can get big things done. That’s important.
We have core assets and we have unique assets. We have superb access to river, rail and interstate. And we have a high per capita income and a low cost of living. These are all important factors we need to build on.
IBJ: How long do you plan to be here at the Chamber?
Chulick: The board of directors is not currently looking for a replacement. I’ll be here throughout 2019 and perhaps beyond. I’m very enthusiastic about what we can accomplish over the naext 12 to 24 months. We all want to make things better for the next generation. That’s why I’m involved and that’s why I’ll stay involved for a while.
Federal money will complete levee work by 2022
Some $95.2 million in federal money is being made available for flood prevention in East St. Louis.
With the funds, the levee work will be completed in 2022, after years of efforts.
“This project is vitally important to East St. Louis and the entire Metro East region,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, D-Murphysboro, who represents the 12th Congressional District. “Not only does this infrastructure project set the table for future economic development, it also provides protection from flooding to local residents and businesses. This levee project is truly a win-win.”
The Metro East Levee System, which is 73.7 miles in length, consists of five levee projects located in Madison, St. Clair and Monroe Counties in Illinois. The levees were authorized and constructed to a height equal to 54 feet on the St. Louis gauge, with completion of the original construction several decades ago.
Since that time more than $170 million in federal and local funds have been invested in aged levee infrastructure to reduce risk. The work that remains is correction of underseepage issues with the levee system. This is a critical issue that increases risk of failure.
Initial efforts to remedy the underseepage issues, called the 100-year level improvements, are complete with $74 million of new construction invested to date, and the remaining underseepage correction projects are now underway.
The Metro East Levees protect 288,000 people/employees, 4,000 businesses, over 56,000 jobs, 111,000 acres, and $13.3B in assets. The funds will not only protect but provide opportunities for local people to work as local contractors.
“The St. Louis District is committed to working with our partners and stakeholders in rehabilitating the Metro East Levee System and improving the quality of life of those we serve,” Col. Bryan Sizemore, commander, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District said.