St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said he got a small reaction from Robert Cardillo, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, when he told him that the city was offering a 100-acre site at no cost.
"Although he’s got a good poker face, I thought I saw him crack a smile," Slay said.
Those are the subtle hints officials in both Missouri and Illinois are looking for as they compete for the $1.75 billion federal spy facility, which will be moving from its current location south of downtown. The top contenders are the city’s north side location and a 182-acre site in St. Clair County near Scott Air Force Base.
Officials from both sides of the river met with Cardillo on Friday. St. Clair County has long said it would give the NGA 182 acres at no cost, as well as an additional 200 acres if needed. But at a press conference Friday afternoon, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner announced $115 million in state funding for infrastructure projects around the site.
On Monday, Mayor Francis Slay held a similar press conference in his office, flanked by U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, U.S. Rep. Williams Lacy Clay, and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon. The city is loathe to lose a facility that's been located there for 72 years and houses 3,100 employees.
"We know that a new NGA facility in north St. Louis will catalyze our entire community," Slay said. "Jobs, economic investment, and the ability of the project to transform the neighborhoods near the Pruitt-Igoe site will continue the revitalization we’re seeing in other parts of the urban core."
Officials touted the north city location for being closer to Lambert International Airport and to downtown.
"The days when talented young people wanted to commute 25, 35, 45 miles a day to go to work are over," Clay said.
He said it wouldn’t be easy to recruit the best and brightest to work in a "cornfield next to a strip mall in an Air Force base." The swipe at Illinois drew laughter.
But buying out property owners, demolishing buildings and readying 100 acres of urban terrain will not be cheap.
The city has budgeted $130 million for the project, including infrastructure around the facility. St. Louis Development Corporation executive director Otis Williams said it will be paid for with $35 million in Brownfield tax credits, and using half of the $2.4 million annual earnings taxes from the NGA facility’s employees and up to $12 million in state withholding taxes for the next 30 years.
When asked how the project will affect the city and state’s tax coffers, Williams said they expect more employees in the future.
"As the workforce grows, and as their salaries grow, for both the city and the state the income from that facility will grow as well," he said.
Outside the mayor’s office a handful of protestors held signs. Joyce Cooks, who lives within the proposed site, said the project would not benefit everyone. Her family is among 30 or so property owners the city has taken to court in eminent domain proceedings.
"We’re all being forced to do what they want," Cooks said. "...No matter what you say, we’re going to take it. That’s what eminent domain means."
Yet officials gathered at the press conference said the project would help the entire north side. They spoke of the president’s commitment to urban areas and the federal designations for the area including Strong Cities Strong Neighborhoods, Choice Neighborhoods and the Promise Zone.
The federal government’s failed Pruitt-Igoe housing development, just to the south of the proposed city site, also came up several times on Monday.
"Certainly this is the place where the federal government has a chance to make up for the incredible bad judgment of the building and then demolition of Pruitt-Igoe," Sen. Blunt said.
The senator said it’s clear that bringing the NGA to north city would have an economic impact. He pointed to the NGA’s facility in Arnold, which he said was located in an open field 10 years ago.
"That open field, that now has 600 employees go to that location every day, is a booming economic area of dry cleaners, restaurants, grocery stores, filling stations and all of the things that come with a payroll like this," he said.
NGA director Cardillo's preliminary decision will come April 1, within a report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. After a public comment period, the NGA's final decision is expected in late spring or early summer.
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