When the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development bestowed a Promise Zone designation on parts of St. Louis, officials here saw at as an opportunity to turn distressed parts of the region around.
But at least one St. Louis alderman is questioning the boundaries of the Promise Zone – especially since it doesn’t take in hard-hit portions of the city’s South Side.
HUD Secretary Juliàn Castro announced that St. Louis was one of eight communities receiving the Promise Zone designation. For parts of north St. Louis and north St. Louis County, the move could mean easier access to federal funding and additional manpower.
But during a hearing of the Board of Aldermen’s Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee on Wednesday, Alderman Cara Spencer asked officials with the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership why the 20th Ward was left out of the Promise Zone. The Partnership handled the application to HUD.
“I’m really concerned,” said Spencer in an interview after the committee hearing ended. “The Promise Zone is including areas that have seen disinvestment and have high levels of poverty. And in the South Side, the 20th Ward specifically has a tremendous amount of disinvestment and high poverty levels. We don’t have good access to jobs. We don’t have good jobs, period. And so, I was greatly disappointed to see that there was no inclusion whatsoever of the South Side.”
Indeed, the 20th Ward encompasses south St. Louis’ most distressed neighborhoods – including Gravois Park and Dutchtown. While it includes portions of the eclectic Cherokee Street business district, the ward has faced chronic poverty, crime and building vacancies for years.
“The idea would be that these areas would get priority for some federal funding,” Spencer said. “I think that’s vitally important to where I am in the South Side.”
St. Louis Economic Development Partnership President Rodney Crim said in an interview there were structural reasons for not including the 20th Ward in the Promise Zone.
For one thing, Crim said HUD generally limits the zones to about 200,000 people – and the city and county’s share is split relatively evenly. He also said the Zone has to be contiguous, and it would have been difficult to draw boundaries down to the 20th Ward that didn’t incorporate parts of St. Louis that don’t need extensive federal assistance.
He added that his organization and other economic development agencies would continue to help portions of the city and county not included in the Promise Zone – including the 20th Ward.
“The Promise Zone application requirements were that you come in with about 200,000 people in kind of the most distressed areas,” Crim said. “And so, this was an opportunity for us to draw a contagious line that included much of north St. Louis City and north St. Louis County – including the Ferguson impacted area. And so, because of those requirements that’s why anything that was not contiguous was not included.”
Spencer though said geographic complexities shouldn’t have been a factor in the decision-making process.
“I’d like to revisit it. I’m not sure how set in stone it is,” Spencer said. “Because there are always ways – we’ve gerrymandered a lot of wards around here. I was kind of brainstorming ways we could kind of hop down and include some South Side in that Promise Zone area. I’m not exactly sure how we could do it, but I think we could come up with a creative solution.”
Boon to McKee?
Wednesday session was aimed at getting information to HUDZ committee members about the Partnership’s work. But it turned out Spencer wasn’t the only alderman skeptical about the Promise Zone’s boundaries.
Alderman Chris Carter, D-27th Ward, said he recently toured the 20th Ward with Spencer. He said there were similarities between Spencer’s ward and his northeast St. Louis-based ward, adding that both areas have been dealing with “high crime, major vacancies and just years and years of disinvestment.”
But Carter was even more concerned that the primary beneficiary of the Promise Zone would be Paul McKee, the architect of a controversial redevelopment plan on the city’s north side. McKee joined Castro, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay Tuesday on a bus tour before the Promise Zone announcement.
Carter said he based his concern on an “Enterprise Zone” that was set up a few years ago. While it included his ward, he said the prime beneficiary was the Renaissance Hotel.
“That’s what I believe it’s for,” Carter said. “And I believe that his private organization will be one to work on those grant applications and receive the funding.”
“I mean we’ve seen this before and this is nothing new,” he added. “It’s just a different name.”
But Crim said that political leaders – including the Board of Aldermen – would have a say in what projects receive priority in the Promise Zone. He added people like Carter would be “very much involved in this process as we go forward on what plans make the most sense to accomplish eliminating distress in some of our most distressed areas.”
Crim also said that one of the reasons St. Louis got the Promise Zone designation is the region has a lot of formulated plans – besides the NorthSide project.
“We’re trying to leverage some existing plans, in terms of concepts, to say, ‘Boy, if we can get money coming toward these plans like Great Streets and the Bus Rapid Transit’ and things like that have already been talked about,” Crim said. “Those existing plans and those concepts are in there.”