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Economy & Business

McKee says North Side is best place for city to attract jobs

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 17, 2010 - Developer Paul McKee, who has seen more than his share of opposition to his multibillion-dollar proposal to rebuild much of north St. Louis, likes to say that "nothing great happens unless you embrace the tension."

Friday, he acknowledged no shortage of tension as he has tried to win over residents of the area, but he thinks the divisiveness may be a thing of the past.

"Every one of these people, when I first met them, it was in a confrontational situation," McKee told a panel discussion on development sponsored by the Missouri Association for Social Welfare. "I hope that is no longer the case."

Joining McKee on the panel, at the Highlands in Forest Park, were Romona Taylor Williams, a resident of the area; Rodrick Jones of the Grace Hill Settlement Association; Sean Thomas of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group; and the Rev. Rich Creason of Holy Trinity Catholic Church.

The topic: "Visions of Development: Who Benefits?"

For McKee -- whose project has been stalled, at least temporarily, because of a judge's ruling against the development plan and tax-increment financing approved by the city -- the answer is simple: The people who live in the affected area, and the city of St. Louis as a whole, can all benefit.

He said that his career has shown him the folly of going into projects purely for the financial rewards.

"Every time in my career that I've focused on making money," he told the group, "I have lost more money than I have ever dreamed of. Every time in my career that I've focused on doing the right thing, I have made more money than I've ever dreamed of."

McKee said the message he has carried to nearly 90 community meetings over the past few years, trying to explain what he is trying to do, can be summed up in five words: He wants to create a regenerated community where people can live, learn, work, play and pray.

To achieve those goals, he said, he needed to find an area where parcels of land could be assembled to a size large enough to attract companies that can provide a substantial number of jobs.

The only place where such a quantity of vacant land is available, he said, is north St. Louis.

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"The north side is going to lead this city to greatness again," McKee said. "If we didn't have the land, we couldn't compete for these jobs."

He noted that all along, the plan has been for his McEagle company to be the catalyst for the project, but he expects to recruit another five to 10 residential developers and another five to 10 commercial developers to take part as well. He also re-emphasized his stance on eminent domain and relocation of current residents -- neither is in his plans.

"We don't want one person who is there now to leave," McKee said.

Further, he stressed that the TIF money now in dispute will go only for rebuilding the crumbling streets, sewers, parks and other infrastructure in the project, not into own bank account.

"Many people think we're pocketing this money," McKee said. "That's impossible. It's against the law. If we did that, we'd go to jail."

Other panelists agreed on the need for the amenities and jobs that McKee said his regeneration would provide. Thomas, of the Old North St. Louis group, showed how abandoned, deteriorating buildings had been rehabbed into living space, and how those rental properties have in turn attracted new homes for sale and new commercial space near Crown Candy.

Williams emphasized that the most successful plans are those that take a "grass roots, bottom up approach." She said that residents of the area, such as herself, know what they need, and she recalled how disheartened she was in the lack of commercial and recreational facilities in the area when she first moved here from West Virginia a few years ago.

"I worked on the North Side," she said. "I lived on the North Side. But I could not play on the North Side, and I could not buy my goods and services on the North Side. That was very disappointing to me."

She recalled meeting with McKee for the first time and seeing what he wanted the neighborhood to become.

"His vision was beautiful," Williams said. "But it was someone else's vision, and it wasn't necessarily the vision of the people who live there."

Jones stressed the need for "enduring change" in the area and said that the answer to the question posed to the panel, about who benefits from development, is easy. The entire city will benefit from more jobs, more people and a bigger tax base.

Creason added that nonprofit groups and community organizations also gain from increased development, and he urged more attention be paid to what he called metropolitan equity -- making sure that the city and older, inner-ring suburbs get the same resources and attention that newer suburban and exurban areas do.

"Even though the St. Louis area tends to be pretty well integrated racially," he said, "we are not very well integrated economically."

McKee returned to the question of economics, noting that because of the recession, banks have curbed their participation in the loan market, to the extent that only one bank has been willing to come forward and take part in his project, and that one is in Washington, Mo.

"We don't have the right economic policy in this country," he said, "so the banks are not lending. The financial encumbrances are unbelievable."

And he urged Missouri to retain tax credits, which have come under fire as something the state budget cannot afford, at least in the numbers they have granted in the past. Calling the credits "the only job creation tools we have in Missouri," McKee added:

"If we're going to compete as a state, we better have some tools. We can't go around without any bullets in our gun."

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