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Economy & Business

Gentrification Is Hurting St. Louis’ Small Manufacturing Firms, SLU Study Concludes

012221-wikimedia-Steelcote Manufacturing Company Paint Factory_01.jpg
Wikimedia
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The old Steelcote Manufacturing Company Paint Factory, shown in 2017, was recently converted into loft apartments. A new St. Louis University study finds when manufacturing companies close, the land shifts to commercial real estate and jeopardizes the industry.

The city of St. Louis is losing nearly seven small to mid-size manufacturing companies per year. When they go, their buildings are either left vacant or replaced with trendy coffee shops and loft apartments.

Sarah Coffin, an urban planning professor at St. Louis University, describes this shift in land use as “industrial gentrification.”

“It's the displacement of industry,” she said. “And the argument that we're saying is that when industry decides to move, they have to decide that they want to stay in the city, because it's no different moving from the city of St. Louis to St. Charles County, or to Texas.”

Without more municipal support, Coffin said the city will continue to lose its most financially productive land, as real estate firms buy up old manufacturing facilities and push out those that remain. As an industrial neighborhood becomes increasingly populated with residents, she said, “it becomes this conflict.”

She said residents become frustrated with truck traffic, noise and smells, while manufacturing firm owners wonder what residents expected when they moved in.

Coffin studied the phenomenon in collaboration with Marc Bowers, executive director and founder of the manufacturing-focused nonprofit St. Louis Makes. Together, they interviewed the owners of 28 St. Louis firms to learn about the challenges they’re facing and what could help.

They found that many manufacturers are struggling to hire qualified workers and come up with the money to repair aging facilities. The business owners are also growing increasingly frustrated that the city is focusing more on developing the central corridor than solving their issues.

Coffin said she shared initial findings with the St. Louis Development Corporation, which told her that it wasn't aware of the industry’s needs but that it wanted to support them.

She said small and mid-size manufacturing firms are tied to vital job growth in the city.

“They’re career ladder jobs. Employees are in positions that are resume building. They’re building skill sets. So it’s not like getting a job at Walmart,” she said.

The study lists five recommendations the city could carry out to preserve the manufacturing sector:

  • Create a manufacturing-focused workforce strategy.
  • Provide resources to address aging infrastructure needs.
  • Streamline the permitting process.
  • Develop a land use strategy that supports the needs of the current manufacturing sector.
  • Help firm owners with retirement planning to ensure a stable company future.
Rob Rolves
Rob Rolves
Rob Rolves, who recently took over Foreman Fabricators, said he wishes the city offered more support to manufacturing firms like his.

Rob Rolves, owner of Foreman Fabricators, participated in the study. He recently purchased the 12-employee metal manufacturing firm after working there for more than three decades.

It’s located in a small industrial neighborhood bordered by Interstate 44 to the south, railroad tracks to the north and Kingshighway to the west. Rolves said the neighbors have only changed twice in that time. Though recently, he said, someone tore down a warehouse near his to build a restaurant.

“The one next to us was a manufacturing building that had been closed for 10 to 15 years. And it was all covered in graffiti. And so I kind of liked that they're cleaning it up,” he said. “But if they put in a shopping center there, what will that do? I don't know the answer to that.”

Rolves said he doesn’t anticipate any problems with neighbors. He said he has more to worry about when it comes to working with the city. Rolves said he wishes the city would provide the same kind of support for manufacturing firms like his as they do for new tech companies.

For example, he rented space to a startup fabricator and allowed it to use his equipment, he said. He was excited about the idea of supporting an entrepreneur, but as soon as the city found out, he was told he violated protocol. He said the situation became more complicated and expensive than it needed to be.

“You just get this whole feeling of like you’re just a cow to be called in when it’s your time to go to the butcher,” he said.

“It does not feel like the city — and I’m not saying they’re different than anybody else, I’m just saying what I’ve experienced — it doesn't feel like they really care if we’re here or not.”

Growing entrepreneurship

St. Louis Makes Director Marc Bowers sees a lot of opportunity to grow entrepreneurship in the manufacturing sector. But, he said, companies need more resources.

“I think that what we have is a missed opportunity in a lot of these smaller firms that we don't have efforts around saving and growing and developing,” he said. “And as an alternative to that, we just let them sort of flounder. And it's a really, really big loss for the region.”

Bowers said the problem is that smaller firms don’t have as many resources as larger ones to advocate for their needs to the city.

“Any concentration of manufacturing in the area eventually gets chiseled away and nibbled away and eroded away as those buildings are converted into restaurants and condos,” he said. “And once you start to lose that base, then there's no reason to advocate on behalf of a neighborhood, and you've just got one guy holding out.”

Bowers said this is happening in pockets across north and south St. Louis.

One of the biggest problems, he said, is that many firms are struggling to hang on in their neighborhoods, and they don’t have a clear plan for the next generation of ownership.

He said some owners have told him they believe their real estate is more valuable than their company. But Bowers wants to change that way of thinking and encourage more entrepreneurial-minded people to pursue careers in the manufacturing sector.

Following Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan

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