By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
ST. LOUIS — The game’s not quite over, but the home team appears to have made the best pitch.
Armed with a site recommendation from the top player at National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, St. Louis officials are waiting out the final decision on the $1.75 billion replacement for NGA’s aging facility.
Director Robert Cardillo has declared the location at Cass and Jefferson avenues in north city to be the agency’s preferred alternative, or APA, for the Next NGA West project, which will house 3,100 employees.
The largely vacant, 100-acre location won out over three other sites, including a 182-acre property located just north of Scott Air Force Base, on land owned by St. Clair County. Many top Illinois elected officials, including the governor and both U.S. senators, had lined up behind the Scott site, saying it was shovel-ready — and free land that provides an excellent fit for NGA’s military intelligence work.
Cardillo, however, said the St. Louis city site “provides NGA with the most technological, academic and professional environment for this agency to develop the capabilities and solutions necessary to solve the hardest intelligence and national security problems entrusted to us by the American people.”
The APA is not the final decision. It is part of the National Environmental Policy Act process, and a comment period that began April 1 and ends April 16 will allow for additional public input before the signing of the final Record of Decision, which is expected to be complete by early June 2016. NGA wants to begin construction of the facility in early 2017.
U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin, a Democrat, and Mark Kirk, a Republican, both said they would work through the comment period in an attempt to sway the final decision to Illinois.
The NGA site selection process began in 2012 when the agency announced plans to move from its current location at 3200 S. Second St. and Arsenal Street. A series of planning studies, including an economic analysis, determined it would be less costly, quicker and less disruptive, to build a new facility rather than upgrade current facilities.
The preferred alternative came down to the St. Louis City Site “based on its ability to deliver a location that met the schedule, reduced costs, delivered a location that best served the mission and vision for NGA’s future, and minimized impacts to the environment,” according to the Final Environmental Impact Statement, which analyzed the four sites.
According to the report, the decision came down to St. Clair County and St. Louis city, based on cost and schedule, but St. Louis had the edge on environmental impact; the potential for less disruption for commuting employees; partnerships within the city’s burgeoning tech scene; and the potential to recruit younger workers who would be interested in working in an urban environment.
Approximately 70 percent of the current NGA Second Street workforce live in Missouri.
Cardillo identified Mission Efficiency and Mission Flexibility and Security to be the highest priority to NGA. Other factors considered were: Environmental Considerations, said to be a medium priority; Key Regulations, Directives and Orders, medium priority; and Schedule and Cost, low priority.
From an industry partner perspective, the environmental impact statement said St. Louis is receiving national attention in its success as a city for technology industry startups.
“The relationships NGA has established with the T-REX incubator in downtown St. Louis and the firms in the Cortex Innovation Community in midtown are promising in terms of future technology supporting GEOINT (geospatial intelligence). While industry relationships can be maintained on either side of the river, there is an infusion of energy that is apparent in locating in the midst of incubators and innovation,” the report said.
NGA currently enjoys strong relationships with Washington University and Saint Louis University, both located in the city, the report said.
“This relationship provides a strong recruitment pool for NGA,” the report said. “The proximity of the St. Louis City Site is helpful in making the most of student/faculty relationships with the agency.”
Additionally, NGA enjoys ongoing partnerships with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Coast Guard. The proximity to Lambert International Airport also was seen as an advantage.
The report did give some credence to the St. Clair County in terms of potential partnerships:
“Two governmental partners, US TRANSCOM and Air Mobility Command, are located at Scott AFB. NGA currently maintains a 35-member support team co-located at US TRANSCOM. The Midwest Center of Cyber Excellence is being established in St. Clair County and could prove to be a valuable partner in the future,” the report said. “The potential connection to the computer science graduates from the University of Illinois was also recognized. However, at present, Washington University and St. Louis University are the only local research universities partnered with NGA.”
From a recruitment standpoint, many studies indicate that newer college graduates prefer urban environments, the report says. The large size of the millennial generation has been a driver for population growth in some cities.
To get a feel for preferences, NGA said it conducted its own survey of 152 students who are currently in the hiring pipeline. Sixty-seven responded. Only those who were familiar with the Next NGA West Campus project (48 respondents) were asked to respond to questions specifically regarding the four sites (the others being in Fenton, Mo., and Melhville, Mo.)
When asked about the specific sites, 42 percent ranked the St. Louis City Site as their top choice, while 25 percent ranked St. Clair County Site as their top choice. Conversely, 25 percent of the respondents ranked St. Louis City Site as their least desirable site, and 50 percent ranked St. Clair County Site as their least desirable site.
In terms of environmental impact, the St. Clair County Site came in for criticism because developing undeveloped land could impact water resources and forest habitat that is deemed to provide habitat for migratory birds and potential foraging habitat for threatened and endangered species.
“(The St Louis site) contains no biological habitat beyond what supports urban species. It would not impact any habitat for migratory birds, listed species, or impact any water resources. The project includes the opportunity to transform aesthetics in the area and remediate environmental contamination,” the study concludes.
On one large issue, the potential for crime, the study concludes that the St. Clair County Site presents “a stronger security posture than an urban environment (but) it is anticipated that a strong security presence, security management system, onsite parking and careful site planning and building design features can be implemented at the St. Louis City Site location.”
The city has so far spent nearly $10 million to acquire the land in its proposed site. The city and state of Missouri are prepared to spend about $130 million on land acquisition and environmental cleanup. The city is seeking to acquire a number of properties in the site via eminent domain.
NGA is both an intelligence agency and combat support agency, working in partnership with the intelligence community and U.S. Department of Defense. NGA and its predecessor organizations have been part of the St. Louis community since the 1950s.