Otis Williams, St. Louis Economic Development Leader, Reflects On Two Decades Of Work
The future of economic development in St. Louis will be in the hands of new leaders.
Newly elected Mayor Tishaura Jones will work with a fresh face at the city’s economic development department after longtime director Otis Williams retires this spring.
Williams spent more than two decades at the St. Louis Development Corporation, where he became director in 2013. He’s departing after laying the groundwork for a shift in the way the city does business with developers.
Over the years, he said the challenges of the job have mostly stayed the same, but the city’s approach is starting to include more resident input.
“You didn’t quite have as many opportunities to engage with the community — or at least that wasn’t the manner in which we went about our business,” he said. “But today, it is all about community engagement and involving people in the process of making decisions.”
Williams played a key role in many of the region’s biggest development projects during his tenure. That includes the new Busch Stadium and the area around it known as Ballpark Village, as well as the redevelopment of the Gateway Arch grounds and a new Major League Soccer stadium that uses significantly less public money than initially proposed.
One of the biggest accomplishments during his tenure was keeping the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency’s headquarters in St. Louis. Construction is underway for a nearly $2 billion campus in north St. Louis, at the corner of Jefferson and Cass avenues in the St. Louis Place neighborhood.
It’s expected to be completed in 2023. The city is planning other infrastructure projects that will connect the 97-acre site to the business community in downtown St. Louis.
“The growth and the retention of the NGA and the geospatial [industry], I think will be something that will transform not only north St. Louis, but it will be a transformative engine for the region,” Williams said.
He also oversaw a shift toward investing in home-grown businesses, which he said is paying off. Williams said startup incubators like T-Rex in downtown St. Louis and the Cortex Innovation Community in the Central West End are boosting tech jobs and stoking the economy.
But the SLDC has gotten criticism over the years for doling out tax incentives along the city's central corridor instead of spreading them out across the city.
Developers have largely neglected northside neighborhoods. There are still thousands of vacant buildings there, and most of them are owned by the city.
“How we got there is regretful, but the fact that we have it, we have to look at it as an opportunity,” Williams said.
He said SLDC has to work with the remaining residents on redevelopment in those neighborhoods going forward. He admits it weighs on his mind that he hasn’t done more to help.
“I mean, the fact that we were not able to have a great impact on north St. Louis is probably one of the things I was saying is not one of the shining stars that I have in my past,” he said. “But it's not because I didn't care.”
Williams said the problem comes down to a lack of resources and difficulty getting developers to see the opportunities over the risks.
But he hopes reshuffling the department toward a neighborhood-based strategy will help. That’s one element of the city’s first comprehensive development framework in decades, which Williams unveiled last year.
He said it's crucial that the department include residents in the process and remain transparent about the financial modeling that goes into calculating tax incentives. Despite criticism to the contrary, he said tax incentives are still a necessary tool to attract developers.
Implementing the new economic development framework will be up to the next director.
One piece of advice he plans to give his successor is to keep in mind that relationships matter a lot in a political environment. He said it will take longer to get things done, but getting stakeholders on board is an essential part of the process.
Overall, Williams said, heading up SLDC is not an easy job.
“I can't tell you how many times I have awakened in the middle of the night and said, ‘I should have said, or I should have done.’ And the next day, you know, you have a different challenge and you move on,” he said. “So you're forever trying to get things done.”
Williams said that the future looks bright for St. Louis, and that he hopes the next leader brings lots of fresh energy to the department.
But he’s ready to say goodbye to 7 a.m. meetings and spend more time with his family.
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