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McKee gets an earful of criticism at TIF Commission hearing, vote set for Sept. 11

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: It was a standing-room-only public hearing on the long-delayed Northside Regeneration Project, with plenty of people eager to give their views. The hearing was, though, the first step toward “starting the TIF clock” on two areas of the project, so no votes were taken. The TIF Commission will decide whether to recommend approval of the proposal at its Sept. 11 hearing.

At one point in the hearing, the members of the city’s TIF Commission asked people to move chairs forward to accommodate the overflow crowd.

Included in that crowd of over 200 people, which lined up against the walls and filled every chair in St. Louis Development Corp.’s conference room, was James Meinert, one of the residents in the 1,500-acre area that’s part of developer Paul McKee’s ambitious proposal.

Meinert repeated a contention mentioned over and over again at Wednesday's hearing: Residents didn't get the chance to provide meaningful input for the proposal.

“I think the jobs are coming, I think the development is coming,” Meinert said. “And I think what people are asking for is to ask us and include us and to ask the people and to involve the people. We haven’t felt included. Look how full this room is.”

As conceived, McKee’s project would use $390 million in tax increment financing as part of a 23-year, $8.1 billion redevelopment of 1,500 acres in north St. Louis. Tax increment financing would be used to improve the site's infrastructure -- streets, sidewalks and sewers. If all goes as planned and the Board of Aldermen approves later this fall, construction on the infrastructure would begin in late winter or early spring.

During the roughly two-hour hearing, speaker after speaker criticized the proposal. That included Zach Chasnoff, an organizer for Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment.

“I think people will rebut me and tell me that there have been public meetings held,” Chasnoff said. “But I think the tenor of those public meetings is sometimes questionable. What we are the most concerned about is having adequate citizen participation in this kind of development.”

Isaiah Hair – a plaintiff in an unsuccessful lawsuit to try and stop McKee’s plan – said the entire plan came about from “a rush to judgment.”

“We wouldn’t be in this shape right now had they had some concern about us,” Hair said. “They didn’t think nothing about us. Paul McKee here, he thinks about us. But not in the terms in saying ‘I want to help you.’ [It’s] I want to help somebody else. I would to include your neighborhood without you.”

Other speakers criticized McKee for not maintaining the property that he had acquired. Virginia Druhe told members of the TIF Commission that she opposed any additional money for the project “until we see something accomplished.”

“As far as I’m concerned, tens of millions of dollars of money have gone to this project – and I don’t see anything accomplished,” Druhe said. “In fact, what I see is some undevelopment.”

And while Joyce Cooks said she’s “all for progress” and wanted “to see my neighborhood improved,” she added “what I’m seeing is a further decline of the houses that are there.” She also criticized how some property owned by McKee is being used for cornfields, which she contended is stripping away the urban character of the neighborhood.

“I chose to live in the city because it’s where I want to live,” she said. “I don’t want to live in the middle of a cornfield.”

'Embracing the tension'

For his part, McKee said he wasn’t surprised to hear the arguments or see  opponents to his plan. He said, “Nothing great happens unless you embrace the tension.”

“We’re used to hearing things. We want to know things,” McKee said. “The last three years of being delayed has allowed us to probably have another 25 or 30 meetings that we wouldn’t have had hearing from people what’s going on in the community. So we are listening.”

“Obviously, Winston Churchill had a great phrase. And he said ‘you’ll never get your destination if you worry about every barking dog along the way,’” he added, which sparked a derisive reaction from the crowd. “You’ve got to keep moving.”

McKee said he’s attended roughly 146 different meetings since the spring of 2009. 

“We have met with anyone and anybody who would like us to talk to them and explain to them what we’re doing,” McKee said. “So we have been in the public discourse openly with all of our plans and all of our ideas since the spring of 2009. Nothing has changed and nothing is new today.”

He reiterated that he does not have the power to use eminent domain, a frequent allegation about the project. And he added, “We have never taken anyone’s home, nor do we wish to take anyone’s home that doesn’t wish to sell it.”

“We don’t want anyone to leave the Northside,” McKee said. “There are roughly 8,900 people that live inside that line as per the last census. We don’t want one of you to leave. We don’t want one business to leave. That’s really, really important to us to stabilize what’s there.”

In response to speakers like Druhe and Cooks, McKee noted that his plan had been tied up in court until earlier this year. That’s when the Missouri Supreme Court threw out St. Louis Circuit Judge Robert Dierker’s ruling putting the brakes on the proposal.

“We had to go to two separate Supreme Court hearings,” McKee said. “We have wasted over $2.5 million in legal fees. And finally between us and the city and the state, we have prevailed. We prevailed and we have a 6-0 vote in favor of our TIF and our redevelopment plan from the Missouri Supreme Court in the first week of April. So day one of this project, letting us get back on track, is really the first week of April.”

Although most speakers were critical of McKee and his proposal, there were supporters.

Sal Martinez, executive director of Community Renewal and Development Inc., said McKee’s proposal could bring jobs and opportunity to an area that’s long been on the decline.

“I’ve had the opportunity to work with the Northside Regeneration team now for several years, in particular identifying workforce opprotunities for the low and moderate income residents in the community,” Martinez said. “I stand here today very proud to say that several of our young people have been employed as part of this development. I am also proud to say that several minority business enterprises have been engaged as part of this project.”

Jeff Taylor of the St. Louis Job Corps Center said the project could eventually employ young people who struggle to find employment.

“We’re now at the point where we can start this up again and get these young people hired,” Taylor said. “Hired at companies, working – and living in that community working. I can’t get my students out to the Boone Bridge Project. Why? They don’t have cars to get them out there. We’re trying to put jobs right in those communities.”

Ruby Dodson, who’s lived in north St. Louis since the 1960s, said she’s seen “most of everything that you’re replacing diminished” in the last century.

“I would like beauty to be brought back,” Dodson said. “And each person in the community should take efforts to help keep everything nice and beautiful.”

Aldermen speak out

Among the most influential speakers were aldermen who will have a final say on any proposal later this year.

Paul McKee answers questions from the media after Wednesday's TIF hearing.

Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia, D-6th Ward, said, “I’m not really sure if I’m 100 percent comfortable with how the dollars are going to work, because everything looks beautiful on paper. But it would be smart for Paul and SLDC to work with the community so I can work with my constituents in order to have a better way to explain how all of this is going to work.” Her ward is in the redevelopment area.

Alderman Scott Ogilvie, I-24th Ward, said there’s “some real cognitive dissonance” when he hears this “$8.1 billion development figure over and over again.”

“That’s a lot of money, that’s a lot of development,” Ogilvie said. “There’s cognitive dissonance because when we hear that, you also in the same week hear that the principal of this $8.1 billion development is being sued for unpaid taxes in other jurisdictions, for an unpaid personal loan repayment.”

Alderman Freeman Bosley, Sr., D-3rd Ward, took things a step further. Bosley – whose ward is in the development area – said that he would likely hold any legislation activating the TIF if it were referred to a committee he chairs.

Even if Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed directs the bill somewhere else, it may be hard to advance any bill because of “aldermanic courtesy." That's the practice, more or less, of giving a specific alderman leeway if his or her ward is affected by legislation.

“There is no such thing as a bad plan,” Bosley said. “All plans have some good in them usually. And if we work with the people, we can come to whatever it is. But when I look at this plan right here, I see the poor people who live in this area getting a kick in the butt.”

“I think Paul McKee has some good ideas, but those are Paul’s ideas,” he added. “There’s a difference between Paul’s ideas when our needs have not been embraced.”

Asked afterward about Bosley’s comments, McKee said “I’ve got to sit down with Alderman Bosley.”

“I have many, many times and he has acknowledged that,” McKee said. “It’s just the matter of making sure he understands what the request is.”

McKee said that ultimately many people in north St. Louis supported his proposal.

“The community is made up of almost 9,000 people that live in that area,” McKee said. “We meet with them regularly. The silent majority hasn’t come to these meetings. They don’t want the attention.”

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