By ALAN J. ORTBALS
Last summer, the U.S. Department of Defense announced that it would be moving the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency from its current location on South Second Street in St. Louis to one of six finalist sites.
Two of those candidates have since bitten the dust and I think, in truth, it’s boiling down to two real contenders: a site in north St. Louis city and Scott Air Force Base. The decision should be clear.
Initially, the north St. Louis site was that of the former Pruitt-Igoe housing complex. As I wrote in an editorial last August, using that site for this development was a bad idea. Since then, the feds have decided that the 57-acre P-I site is insufficient and they’ve now turned their gaze to approximately 100 acres across the street. With that, the idea went from bad to worse.
Unlike the Pruitt-Igoe site, this land is not vacant. People live there. Businesses operate there. Faultless Healthcare Linen, for example, employees 143 people at its facility on North 25th Street and spent $12 million on an expansion just three years ago. These are the kinds of jobs that are desperately needed in that area. The city needs to be working to attract more of them, not moving them out.
Do you recall a few years ago when Bi-State Development Agency was hit by a strike? Business owners in Chesterfield valley were perplexed as to how to get their employees out to West County from the city without public transportation. Hey, here’s an idea: Put the jobs where the employees live.
If you go uprooting businesses like Faultless, there’s no telling where they’ll end up but more than likely it won’t be in the city of St. Louis, taking a chance that some other deal would come along and force them to move again.
I’m sure that the employees of the NGA are scattered throughout the metro area. They’re not going to move because the work site shifted a few miles. Being a high security installation, this new facility will be fenced and monitored closely by guards. These folks will drive in in the morning and drive out in the evening, having little to no economic impact on the environs. Does anyone really think that this will be the catalyst for other development there?
The only real reason to locate at that site — or any other in the city — is because of the city’s earnings tax. It’s been reported that the employees of the NGA pay $2.4 million annually to the city of St. Louis. Take a poll and see how many of them want to stay in the city.
The north St. Louis site doesn’t make any sense for the NGA either. The intelligence agency interfaces with other DOD missions like USTRANSCOM and DISA, the Defense Information Systems Agency. Both are located at Scott.
And, when it comes time to add or replace staff, Scott is surrounded by a large workforce of technology pros who are retired from the Air Force or working for one of the plethora of IT contractors working for Scott.
A new interchange is currently under construction at Rieder Road and Interstate 64 and will be ready to take the employees straight into the site, which is shovel-ready, complete with infrastructure and fiber optics. St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern has even suggested giving the site to the DOD. It’s estimated that the north St. Louis site would cost the DOD in excess of $20 million.
So, the government can opt for the free, ready to go site that boasts excellent security and interfaces with other DOD operations. Or, it can opt to pay more than $20 million for a site that offers nothing of what it needs and requires eminent domain to force people and businesses out of their way. Hmmmm. That’s a tough one.
With a $3.2 billion annual economic impact, Scott is a huge piece of the regional economy. Located at Scott, the NGA could be the catalyst to bring more missions, more employees and more investment to the base. Anything we can do to add to Scott’s mission, expand its role and strengthen its position in the DOD, we need to do.
As I said in last August’s editorial, if Scott were on the Missouri side of the river, there’d only be one site on the list — not two, four or six. It’s the place where both the agency and the region are best served.
Alan J. Ortbals is president and publisher of the Illinois Business Journal.