Former St. Louis Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr., who has spent the last 13 years as the chief executive of Grand Center Inc., plans to retire in the next few months.
Schoemehl, 68, said in an interview that he felt a new executive was needed to lead the next long-range capital campaign for Grand Center Inc., which has overseen the resurrection and development of the city’s Grand Center arts and entertainment district.
He also felt that the timing was right. “The reason I’m retiring now is that I think we’ve hit a critical threshold in Grand Center. And that is, with the groundbreaking of the Missouri Theater building, we’re now under construction with the final vacant building in the original historic district.”
Schoemehl emphasized that he will stay on the job until a successor is chosen. That process could take several months, he said.
Schoemehl added that he also was ready "to slow down'' and spend more time with his family, especially his granddaughter.
By all accounts, Schoemehl has been a major player in the arts district’s expansion and success. Once filled with boarded-up buildings and vacant lots, the area -- adjacent to St. Louis University -- now sports restaurants, entertainment venues and even some residential units.
However, Schoemehl's public role has been low key, a sharp contrast to his 12 years in the headlines as one of the city’s youngest and most colorful mayors.
Schoemehl was the 28th Ward alderman and only 34 when he decided to challenge then-Mayor Jim Conway, a fellow Democrat, in 1981. Aided by labor support, Schoemehl won and swiftly began revamping city government and its place in the region.
Schoemehl’s desk featured a sign that fit with his then-firecracker personality: “Ready, Fire, Aim.”
He led redevelopment efforts that renovated Union Station, created the Gateway Mall that stretches west from the Old Courthouse, and constructed the now-shuttered downtown shopping mall known as St. Louis Centre.
Schoemehl’s administration also oversaw the initial development of riverboat casinos on the city’s riverfront, which included the conversion of what was then a local riverboat landmark, the S. S.Admiral.
Schoemehl was a major force in the 1980s expansion efforts at Lambert Field, the region’s major airport. That generated controversy, which hurt his long-range political plans.
On a smaller scale, it was Schoemehl’s idea to plant daffodils along the banks of Interstate 64-Highway 40, and to place planting beds in the medians of major city thoroughfares.
In 1992, Schoemehl made an expensive – but unsuccessful – bid for governor. His campaign was plagued by Democratic divisions and protesters from the Bridgeton neighborhoods affected by the airport’s growth. He lost handily in the Democratic primary to then-Lt. Gov. Mel Carnahan, who went on to win the post.
Schoemehl remains the last St. Louis mayor to run for statewide office.
After leaving City Hall in 1993, Schoemehl spent several years involved in various development and business ventures before taking the helm in 2001 at Grand Center Inc. He also spent a two-year stint on the St. Louis School Board in the 1990s.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, who's now on track to be the city's only four-term mayor, was effusive in his praise of Schoemehl.
"Vince Schoemehl has been an important actor in almost every major civic endeavor for a generation," Slay said. "His energy level is usually high enough to light up a few city blocks. He brings a box of ideas to every meeting. His Grand Center is busier, safer, and more interesting today than at any time in the past 50 years. He assures me that his retirement is only from one job, not from civic life. That's a good thing for St. Louis."