According to the latest U.S. census figures, St. Louis County is home to close to 30,000 non-farm-related businesses – about one-fifth of Missouri’s total -- that employ at least 546,000 people.
Add in one-person firms, such as real estate agents or solo-practice lawyers, and the number of county businesses swells to roughly 80,000.
All those jobs and all those businesses highlight the county’s dominant economic role in the state and region. And that's not lost on the candidates running for St. Louis County executive, its top government post.
Nor is it far from the minds of the county's voters, if the questions asked of candidates at last week's League of Women's Voters forum is any indication.
The county executive appoints most of the county's development team, oversees an administration that annually awards tens of millions of dollars of contracts to various businesses and plays a major role as one of the region's top economic cheerleaders. The county executive also oversees departments that implement various policies, ordinances and regulations that affect businesses.
But even though St. Louis County is the state's largest local-government unit, it faces significant economic challenges.
For example: The dwindling amount of open land in the county has helped feed the boom in neighboring St. Charles County. Several high-profile departures over the last decade -- notably of the Chrysler auto plant in Fenton and the Ford plant in Hazelwood -- have fueled concerns about the county's long-term viability.
St. Louis County's population has also remained stagnant for about 20 years, with some middle-class residents flocking to newer homes in the neighboring collar counties. They've been replaced, in part, by defecting residents, of all economic levels, from the city. Parts of north St. Louis County, in particular, have faced major economic challenges --with high foreclosure rates and boarded-up businesses.
All of those issues offer a backdrop to this year's contest for county executive.
Incumbent Charlie Dooley says that his biggest achievement during his 10 years in office has been to encourage economic development and attract businesses. His rival in the Aug. 5 Democratic primary -- Councilman Steve Stenger -- argues that Dooley hasn't done enough.
But the two Republicans vying for the job -- state Rep. Rick Stream and Green Park Alderman Tony Pousosa -- say that Dooley and the Democrats controlling the County Council have done too much, by imposing too many regulations and taxes that they say discourage businesses and force some to move away.
That difference in philosophy pervades the approaches advocated by all the candidates, as they compete in this summer's primaries and prepare for a head-to-head debate this fall over the direction the county should take.
Dooley defends economic record
On the campaign trail and in the county chambers, Dooley has repeatedly alluded to the county's change in status, and his observation that St. Louis County is no longer "a rural county" with miles of open space.
"We're an urban county," Dooley says, with some of the same urban problems plaguing the city.
In his re-election bid, Dooley long has touted his 10-year record in attracting and retaining businesses. He’s sticking with that pro-business message as he seeks re-election this year.
Dooley’s chief examples? Pharmaceutical giant Express Scripts’ move to north St. Louis County, the expansion of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and the locally based national headquarters of Edward Jones financial services.
Dooley also points to the recent merger of the development agencies in St. Louis County and St. Louis, with the aim of bolstering the region's economic clout in pursuing jobs, while eliminating duplication.
“We have momentum in St. Louis County now,’’ Dooley said. “We can’t stop.”
His chief Democratic rival, Stenger, says that Dooley is failing to pursue businesses from outside the region aggressively, and isn't exploring new ways to encourage economic growth. Stenger points to the county's own figures that show it has seen a “net loss’’ of 30,000 jobs over the last 10 years.
Stenger says that county government has failed to focus enough on attracting new businesses from outside the region. “That means taking St. Louis County to those businesses and selling them on St. Louis,’’ Stenger said.
As another example, Stenger said at the forum that the Dooley administration had failed to be aggressive enough in wooing Google Inc. as it builds an ultra-fast fiber network, called Google Fiber, in cities around the country. Kansas City is getting the network, but St. Louis so far is not. Stenger says that network is the type of technological advance that is needed to attract and retain businesses.
Pousosa and Stream assert that the county is chasing businesses away by imposing too much control and taxes.
"We need to really look at what taxpayers are getting for their dollar,” Pousosa said. "I just don’t agree with raising taxes because they need more money. If they need more money, they need to find out what they’re doing with the money they already have and make sure they’re being fiscally responsible."
As for Stream, he sharply disputes Dooley's portrait of the county's economic health. "We can all agree that county government right now is a mess,'' Stream said at the League forum.
Stream added that seeking more jobs is "the No. 1 issue for everyone in this room." The differences, he continued, lie in how best to achieve economic growth. Too much regulation, he said, is "really strangling business" in the county.
Dooley, Stenger cite roads and rivers
Dooley says that his opponents in both parties misunderstand the role of St. Louis County when it comes to helping businesses.
“What we do is create an environment for businesses,” he said. “We provide the infrastructure” with good roads, light-rail lines, parks and other amenities.
For example, Dooley said the reconstruction of U.S. Interstate 64/Highway 40 was as much for business and it was for individuals because of the importance of transportation. The same goes for parks improvements.
“If we are afraid to invest in ourselves, so are the businesses,” Dooley said. “People need to feel that if they come to the St. Louis metro area, they have an opportunity to be successful.”
Stenger, meanwhile, says the county isn’t doing enough to promote its assets. “We have a great river system, we have a great rail system, we have a great transportation infrastructure, and we have a great location,’’ Stenger said.
"We’re right here in the middle of the country. We need to take advantage of those things. We have a great airport that’s just underutilized. We have undercapacity.”
Stenger said the county needs to be dispatching “a top-notch team’’ to woo businesses from outside the region.
Dooley’s camp points to the regional cooperation already underway that’s aimed at economic growth.
In 2013, St. Louis and St. Louis County merged their economic development agencies. The combined agency, known as the St. Louis Development Partnership, first sprung into action in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Boeing – already one of the region’s largest employers – to construct its new airliner, the 777X, in St. Louis County. While the partnership didn't win the project, it saw the effort as a valuable experience in working quickly and smartly to present a credible proposal.
The agency now is working on implementing a strategic plan that was unveiled earlier this year.
'Leaving for a reason'
The two Republican candidates see the county's economic development landscape differently than Dooley and Stenger.
Pousosa complained that businesses in St. Louis County are over-regulated and overtaxed, which he also said prompted business owners to leave. He said he would have opposed recent tax increases for parks and for public transportation, contending the county should live within its means. Those tax hikes were approved by voters, but Pousosa says the result hurts business growth.
Stream, now the Missouri House’s budget chairman, said one of his top priorities as county executive would be to make the county friendlier to businesses.
As an example of failure, Stream pointed to north St. Louis County, which "used to have four shopping centers. Now there are none." That region's economic decline, said Stream, needs to be addressed before it spreads to other parts of the county.
Overall, Stream said the county needs "a better economic development plan than what’s going on right now.”
"They’re leaving for a reason,” Stream said. "They don’t find the environment in St. Louis County to be conducive to running a business. Since I filed in late March, I have had many, many — dozens and dozens — of small and medium-sized business owners… come to me and say, ‘You’ve got to get in there and change what’s happening in St. Louis County for our businesses.’ ‘’