Editor's Weekly: Who will benefit from National Car Rental Field?

Oct 8, 2015

So now we know that our new football stadium would be called National Car Rental Field. That rolls off the tongue with an odd ring of impermanence – a reminder that stadiums and teams, like rental cars, come and go.

Renderings of National Car Rental Field.
Credit Courtesy of HOK

Still, Enterprise Holdings, parent of National and mega-philanthropist of St. Louis, likes the sound enough to promise $158 million for the naming rights. The announcement this week seemed timed to create a sense of momentum and inevitability as NFL owners were meeting. But the owners, who will eventually decide whether St. Louis keeps a team, were not all impressed, as Jason Rosenbaum reported.

With a different constituency in mind, city planners waxed eloquent about community rejuvenation, the Post-Dispatch reported. In their vision, the riverfront stadium will combine with a new home for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency more than a mile away to spur improvements in north St. Louis.

Nevermind that football stadiums do not yield economic benefits for surrounding neighborhoods – one of the few conclusions many economists can agree on. Nevermind that the federal agency may move elsewhere. Nevermind that controversy is still brewing about the legality and financing of both projects. Perhaps officials thought that conflating the two would somehow cancel out the questions about each.

So far, backers of the stadium – from Gov. Jay Nixon to Mayor Francis Slay to prominent business leaders – have managed to outrun most of those questions. They’ve mobilized with the agility, power and determination of an all-star running back, driven by the conviction that St. Louis will suffer irreparable damage to its reputation if we have no NFL team.

If the fundamental issues that arose in Ferguson are not addressed, no construction project, however promising, can cure the problems of our region.

Of course, our region already suffered considerable damage to its reputation when longstanding issues of racial justice burst into the international spotlight with Ferguson. There’s been no comparable “we’ll do whatever it takes” demonstration of commitment to solve those problems. While several key leaders have embraced the Ferguson Commission's recommendations, few people expect to see them implemented with the agility, power and determination of the stadium effort.

And yet, if the fundamental issues that arose in Ferguson are not addressed, no construction project, however promising, can cure the problems of our region. The stadium and intelligence agency offer an early chance to apply this insight.

Whom does this benefit? Does this differentially impact racial and ethnic groups? What is missing that will decrease or eliminate racial disparities?

One recommendation from the Ferguson Commission could help. Noting the pervasive pattern of racial disparities in our region, the commission called for all public decisions to include intentional consideration of whether they will create or perpetuate racial inequities. 

At a minimum, the commission said, three specific questions should be asked about “existing and new regional policies, initiatives, programs and projects”:

  • Whom does this benefit?
  • Does this differentially impact racial and ethnic groups?
  • What is missing that will decrease or eliminate racial disparities?

Let's ask these questions about the stadium and the intelligence agency. You might argue that any development on St. Louis’ north side will help the African-Americans who live there. On the other hand, the direct benefit of the stadium is likely to accrue mostly to those who design, build and use it — not to current residents.

The intelligence agency would bring more than 3,000 jobs to north St. Louis, with spin-off benefits for the surrounding area and for the tax base. But again, direct benefit to current neighborhood residents could be limited, since few would likely be hired for the specialized, classified work.

These projects would certainly improve the appearance and economy of the city’s north side. But they won't necessarily improve the lives of current residents — that is, unless the plans add deliberate efforts to build the skills and resources necessary to open the doors of opportunity.

If civic leaders take time to address the Ferguson Commission’s questions honestly and to work directly with neighborhoods, they should be able to identify concrete steps to spread the benefits to those who need them most.

For decades, most efforts to rejuvenate St. Louis have primarily focused on building structures. If we've learned anything from Ferguson, it should be that we need to focus as well on building up the people whose neighborhoods this construction is supposed to help.