Business Group Merger Plots Future Of Equitable Economic Development
Five area economic development organizations are combining into one group to attract more jobs, raise the region’s global profile and increase equity and inclusion in economic development efforts.
Greater St. Louis Inc. will become the private sector’s lead organization for business development starting Jan. 1. The St. Louis Regional Chamber, Alliance STL, Civic Progress, Downtown STL Inc. and Arch to Park are forming the new organization.
Enterprise Holdings Executive Chairman Andrew Taylor will be the first chair of Greater St. Louis Inc. He said the timing is right for a unified approach after St. Louis watched other cities in the Midwest grow in the past few years because of more successful economic development structures.
“Why not we borrow those ideas and reset how we are dealing with business growth and opportunities and inclusive growth?” Taylor asked.
Organizers of the new effort visited cities including Des Moines, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh to get a better understanding of an approach that could work in the St. Louis region.
The decision to move ahead to a united strategy is not a reflection of poor performance by the groups that are moving under one umbrella, Taylor said.
“The organizations have not failed. Maybe they have not achieved as much as they should,” he said.
Taylor added that other cities in the Midwest have increased their focus on business and that “we’ve got to up our game.”
The region recently lost a chance to be a test site for the proposed hyperloop transportation system. Backers chose West Virginia for that project.
But organizers of Greater St. Louis Inc. said there wasn’t one economic development project that sparked discussions to combine five groups. “I think it’s about what was going right, “ said Jason Hall, who will be Greater St. Louis Inc.’s chief executive officer.
Most of the organizations are on the same floor of One Metropolitan Square downtown, and that has led to an increase in collaboration on efforts by the Pandemic Task Force, GeoFutures and the STLMade initiative.
“We had a recognition. This feels right. The work is more fun, and we are having a greater impact through this collaboration,” Hall said.
Mergers usually lead to redundancies, which can be interpreted as a fancy word for job cuts. Hall said it is too soon to determine if any jobs will be lost once the organizations merge into a single organization.
“We’re going to have an orderly process for reviewing functions and talent,” Hall said. “Some may be redundant. Some new positions may be created as we adapt.”
Making inclusion an economic development priority
Organizers of the revamped approach to economic development are holding diversity and inclusion among the key priorities of the new organization.
Those efforts will be led by Valerie Patton, the current senior vice president of inclusion and talent attraction at the St. Louis Regional Chamber. She will become chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Greater St. Louis Inc.
“You don’t do it with just training,” Patton said. “We have to have training. We have to have integration of people at the table who haven’t been at the table before.”
Listening will be vital, she said, if the new group is to reach its diversity and equity goals.
“We have to be in conversation with one another. We have to learn how to be respectful. And when I say respectful - to agree to disagree.”
Work on a 10-year economic growth plan for the region was launched before the merger was announced and will continue. Organizers said it will build on several initiatives over the past few years including the GeoFutures Strategic Roadmap and the 2020 Vision effort, which was designed to put together an economic development framework for the region.
A draft is expected in about one month and the final recommendations should be out by the year.
Those behind Greater St. Louis Inc. say the findings will be the area’s first plan for job creation in more than 10 years. It will also help guide the new organization into the future.
But Taylor said he would like relatively quick signs of progress from the new economic development setup, even though there is no firm timeline.
“Maybe after six months or a year we’ll look back and say, now OK, what’s working, what’s not working.”
Taylor said a lot of work is already underway.
That includes the investment of billions of dollars in the core of the city and attracting businesses like Accenture Federal Services, which announced plans in June to bring 1,400 jobs to the region over the next five years.