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St. Louis County compiles its 'wish list' of economic stimulus projects for Santa Obama

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 24, 2008 - What do MetroLink, a child-care facility in Wellston and the Danforth Plant Science Center have in common?

They are all -- in some form or other -- on St. Louis County's "wish list" for President-elect Barack Obama's national economic recovery program.

St. Louis County officials have been working hard the past few weeks developing what County Chief Operating Officer Garry Earls laughingly calls his "Christmas wish list," a compilation of projects county officials would like funded from the federal recovery program. (Representatives from St. Louis city did not respond to requests for their "wish list.")

The wish list came about after the incoming administration contacted the U.S. Conference of Mayors and suggested that its members begin collecting ideas and getting them ready to send.

Economists have now suggested that the federal economic recovery plan could cost as much as $1 trillion over two years. Obama's team originally projected the figure at $600 billion.

Getting ready to apply

Taking a cue from President-elect Barack Obama's innovative use of "new technology," St. Louis County officials are jumping on the techno bandwagon.

While no details have been released about the application process for Obama's economic recovery program, county officials are sure electronics will play a big role in that process.

So, they are preparing their applications electronically.

"They're easy to read and can be linked back to a web page on our county website if you want to know more details," County Chief Operating Officer Earls said. "For example, we've got a nine-minute video about the Highway 141 project, but we're not going to send that movie to them. We're going to send them a two-page summary to tell them how important it is and how many different things it could do for our community and then give them a link to the movie so they can watch it if they want."

Traditionally, applications for Community Development Block Grants and other federal programs "have always been big paper jobs," Earls said. "That's the technology of the current administration. I'm trying to think like Jan. 21. This new administration is completely electronic."

Earls says he and Missouri Department of Transportation Director Pete Rahn have been in a "little competition" to determine who could get their list out first.

"Pete was talking about his list as I handed a printout of my list to (U.S. Rep. Todd) Akin," Earls said.

He called his competition with Rahn a friendly one and noted that they are partners in the recovery programs.

"We want to be in the same place," Earls said. "I think it's important that he thinks the (Highway) 141 project is important enough to submit. If we have a joint plan to get it built then we have a great chance of getting funding."

It's crucial that officials be ready for the application deadline, Earls said.

"The important thing for us to do is act like (hockey player Wayne) Gretzky," he said. "He said the really great players don't skate to where the puck is. They skate to where the puck's going to be. That's what we're doing. We're going to where the puck's going to be."

The county's list includes 37 projects "in the $2 billion range," Earls said.

Details about the kind of projects that would qualify for funding haven't been released.

"We're still reading Mr. Obama's mind," Earls joked. Then he gets serious: "But the truth is it doesn't have to be about mind reading. Although (Obama) is not president yet, you can watch him on Saturday morning on YouTube and figure out where he's headed. I'm just reading Mr. Obama's body language and his YouTubes.(To see Obama's YouTube message for Dec. 20, click here .)

"We think we have an idea just based on what (Obama) has told us and what his staff has leaked to us and the kind of speeches he's made at various organizations."

Earls believes the president-elect wants projects that accomplish multiple goals. "He wants these dollars to work for us several times over," Earls said. Projects should "work not just on one problem, but solve five problems simultaneously," he added.

The Midwest, which Earls called "a little microcosm of the country," could use the economic stimulus. "St. Louis County is 20 percent of the population of the state of Missouri and 25 percent of the economy, and that economy is really hurting," he said.

There's no shortage of project ideas and funding needs, Earls said. "We have infrastructure here that requires substantial reinvestment. We have, without a doubt, operations that need a shot in the arm. We have governments that are strapped by their debts but (resident have) an even greater dependence on those governments for services at this point."

Earls described some of the projects:

  •  Extending Highway 141 to "connect up two loose ends of what would be Highway 141 in the Chesterfield-Maryland Heights area." The project would cost an estimated $180 million. "We have no source of funding for it, but it would have an enormous potential payback," he said, including several thousand construction jobs and opening 2,000 acres of "developable ground that could help us generate jobs in a part of the county that doesn't have much of that sort of thing." In addition, it also would improve air quality and save millions of gallons of gasoline "as motorists would no longer have to drive around that big open spot in the county."
  • A "shot in the arm" for MetroLink with a new station at Springdale in Berkeley. "That would help to open up the North Park development area. We have a 600-acre industrial park that's being developed there and a MetroLink station would be a dramatic advantage there."
  • Expansion of the facilities of St. Louis County small business incubator "so entrepreneurs who have a bright idea to sell a new fishing lure out there will have a place to get off the ground."
  • New projects at the Danforth Plant Science Center to "help generate new technologies for a workforce of the future."
  • A child development center in Wellston for mothers "to have a place they can depend on to put their kids so they can go and work at other kinds of jobs."

"We're trying to cover both ends -- the white labcoat jobs at the Danforth Center as well as entry-level folks, single moms who need a place to safely keep their kids," he said.
Earls would also like to create a market for hybrid vehicles produced in the U.S. by having local governments buy them for the police and other departments.

While hybrids would probably not be suitable for cruisers, they could be used for detectives' vehicles and supervisory vehicles for the Highway Patrol and other departments, he said.

"Since we have to buy vehicles anyway, if we could find resources to buy hybrid vehicles, we think we could help to stimulate a demand for hybrid vehicles that could help retool the automobile industry and cause them to build vehicles for that purpose," he said.

Earls acknowledged that no U.S. auto company now makes a hybrid.

Of the $2 billion in projects on the wish list, about $500 million of them are direct county projects, Earls said. The rest are projects in partnership with agencies such as Metro, Metropolitan Sewer District and the Missouri Department of Transportation.

The county isn't sitting back waiting to gear up to use the recovery funds until after the inauguration.

"We're not waiting," he said. "We're writing up these projects and trying to explain how they solve all these problems simultaneously. We're trying to make plans so that we're not just throwing money out there into the world, but we're throwing at specific issues that are going to do some good."

If every community did the same, the country would be in recovery mode, he said.

Kathie Sutin is a freelance writer in St. Louis. 

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