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Economy & Business

Beacon Back Stories: Is downtown reaching a turning point?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 23, 2013: Most children of the Midwest don’t get to experience soaring mountains. So, often, they have to make do with skyscrapers.

Chicago suburbanites like myself often encountered blasé surroundings growing up, with enough shopping centers and chain restaurants to create a sense of monotony. Going to downtown Chicago became something of an event, even if the only activities were taking pictures of the architecture or eating an opulent stuffed pizza.

While St. Louis and Chicago differ greatly in population, demographics and geographic size, they both possess alluring downtowns. St. Louis' downtown is the home base to the city’s major sports teams, the headquarters of the region’s largest companies and the location of one of the nation’s signature landmarks. And a flurry of development in recent years along Washington Avenue made downtown attractive for young professionals to live and play.

But while "big" and "large" are often associated with downtown St. Louis, there’s also been an emphasis on thinking "small." That’s especially the case with T-REx, a co-working space and business incubator located at the Railway Exchange Building. T-REx is a sizable exhibit on how civic leaders are trying to provide space and breathing room for young entrepreneurs, perhaps a key selling point for boosting the city's population and business stock.

All of downtown’s attractions and attributes didn’t arise overnight. While commercial centers such as, say, Cherokee Street bubbled up somewhat organically, it took years — if not decades — of planning, incentives and money to build up downtown.

And, of course, downtown's development isn’t without problems or setbacks. St. Louis Police Department statistics show that crime — especially larcenies and burglaries — is abundant in the downtown area. There are plenty of questions about how the future of the St. Louis Rams will impact the area. And, of course, there’s the long-term challenge of attracting and retaining stable tenants.

That last point was made abundantly clear earlier this week when Macy’s announced it would be closing its downtown store, also located at the Railway Exchange Building. Not only does the shop's closure amount to an end of an era to big retail to the area, but it will also leave a big vacancy in one of downtown’s remaining commercial intersections.

At the same time, some leaders in fostering big and small development throughout downtown are departing. Maggie Campbell announced the departure from her post at the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis. And Sarah Spear was ousted from her position as executive director for Arch Grants, a group that provides seed money to start-up companies.

These events are prompting the Beacon to take a closer look beyond the immediate shock. We want to know what Macy’s imminent departure means for the future of downtown. Can a suitable replacement be found? And if so, what will it be?

And the Beacon wants to examine what these events mean for the city’s start-up movement. We also want to know what’s driving the concerted effort to foster start-ups and entrepreneurship — and whether those efforts have borne fruit. And we want to examine the organizations involved in building up downtown St. Louis and see how — or if — they work together. 

These are big questions that may not elicit immediate answers. But we need your help. That's why we're seeking assistance from as many people as possible — downtown's boosters, detractors, residents and entrepreneurs — to help us guide our coverage. 

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