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First phase of Blairmont project is to build trust, not structures, say residents

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 15, 2009 - Some of the mystery is being lifted concerning the long-rumored redevelopment of large tracts of land in north St. Louis, but don't expect to see buildings going up any time soon.

After years of mistrust and suspicion about the so-called Blairmont project, a public meeting is scheduled for next Thursday night. That follows a presentation this past Monday that was open to a more limited audience, primarily those who live in the area that will be included.

But April Ford-Griffin, the alderwoman who says her 5th Ward contains 90 percent of the property affected by the project, says that the Board of Aldermen won't be considering anything connected to the redevelopment until this fall -- if other pieces of the complicated puzzle fall into place before then.

For now, she said in an interview at City Hall after Friday morning's board meeting, developer Paul McKee has a concept, and she and her constituents have plans. What remains to be seen is how well the two will fit together.

"We've had meetings and meeting and meetings about plans," Ford-Griffin said, giving her view of residents' attitudes toward McKee's project. "Show us how you have incorporated what we told you about our plans."

Added Alderwoman Marlene Davis, whose 19th Ward also is part of the redevelopment area:

"We still have a long way to go. Right now, we only have a concept. We don't have a development plan. That's a long way off."

PIECES OF THE PUZZLE

Ever since McKee and an intricate web of companies became known as the buyer of hundreds of tracts in north St. Louis, stories of what he might do with the property have spread. Not all of them took the most favorable view of the project, and his silence about the redevelopment did little to dampen suspicion.

McKee's McEagle Properties Inc. of O'Fallon, Mo., is probably best known for its WingHaven project in St. Charles County. It also is helping to develop NorthPark, a 550-acre office, manufacturing and distribution complex on the eastern edge of Lambert Field, and McKee played a major role in organizing the effort to lure a freight hub for China to St. Louis.

He became a personal focus of the speculation surrounding the north St. Louis project in 2008, when the Missouri Legislature passed a comprehensive tax credit bill that some said had been tailored just for him. The Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit Act could reimburse McEagle for many of its costs of the project.

But it has limits, including the provision that no land owned by the city, which also holds title to a large number of tracts in north St. Louis, is eligible for benefits under the act. So any attempt by McKee and his companies to assemble the individual pieces of property into one massive development will have to use more than one route to achieve his goal.

By the end of this month, McEagle is expected to submit to the city's Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority a proposal for redevelopment rights and tax increment financing. The Board of Aldermen could consider the requests by this fall, Ford-Griffin said.

She noted that as the alderwoman for much of the area involved, she will play a major role in determining what government assistance the Blairmont receives.

WHAT THE CONCEPT INCLUDES

When a representative of McEagle -- not McKee -- finally talked openly about what Blairmont would include at a meeting Monday night, members of the media were cordially uninvited and escorted from the hall. Organizers of the meeting said they wanted area residents to see the concept first and to comment without worrying that their views would be aired publicly.

But the general outline of the project quickly became known -- a comprehensive 15-year plan for housing, jobs, schools, open space and a total makeover for an area that has long been seen as one of the city's most rundown and abandoned. Davis said that the concept includes "not a few jobs, but a lot of jobs."

Further details are expected to be made available to a wider audience at a meeting at 7 p.m., Thurs., May 21 at Central Baptist Church at 2842 Washington Ave. In a brief telephone interview on Monday, McKee said he would be willing to talk about the project in more detail at that time, but he first wanted the residents to be able to hear about it.

He said after a general presentation, attendees at the meeting would break up into small group discussions with facilitators, then come back for a wrap-up. Afterward, he said, videos about Blairmont would be available online.

The area in question is bounded by Delmar, Grand, Palm and Interstate 70. The project is named for the intersection of Blair and Montgomery streets.

The area needs a lot of improvements, Ford-Griffin acknowledged, but she said the initial phase needs to focus on improved infrastructure, including sewers, streetscapes and greenery. Once that prep work is done, she said, other parts of the plan can move forward.

One reason that the long-discussed project is suddenly shifting into a higher gear is that money for such work is available from Washington as part of the federal stimulus package, she said.

"You've got billions of dollars in stimulus money out there," she said, "and we don't want to be passed over.

"If St. Louis does not apply for those dollars and fit into the silos that the federal government have for stimulus money, we'll be left behind. We have to be in position to get some of the stimulus money to develop our city."

BUILDING TRUST, NOT JUST STRUCTURES

As ambitious as the bricks-and-mortar part of the Blairmont project may be, both Griffin-Ford and Davis say that an equally vital component of the endeavor is repairing the lack of trust that has built up as McKee bought properties in the area but would not say what he was planning to do with them. As weeds grew and bricks were rustled from some of the locations, suspicion took root.

The initial meeting to unveil the concept of the redevelopment was a good step, Ford-Griffin said, but it was just the beginning of a long road.

"His biggest task is building trust and building relationships," she said of McKee, "because of the way he's gone about this. He's been secret about what he is going to do with it.

"If he is not willing to maintain his properties, how can we believe that he's going to do what we see in all those pretty pictures?"

She said that a representative of McEagle -- Bill Laskowsky, its chief development officer -- acknowledged that the company needs to do better. "He said, 'We apologize for the way we went about this, we'll be taking better care of the property,' " she said.

Davis said that the McEagle blueprint is a fine first step, as far as a concept for the site goes, but the area residents have their own vision for the property. Making sure that they are heard will be a big part of the process ahead.

"As long as we communicate," she said, "life will be better. It's never going to be perfect. We've got a long way to go.

"Before, we knew nothing. We knew nothing. We're a lot better off than we were six months ago. But community engagement is critical."

As far as the level of trust, Ford-Griffin said that is growing, but in the end it may not be the most crucial aspect of the deal.

"He has come to the table," he said. "Many residents have asked for years what is the plan. That's what he is showing them now.

"I do business with a lot of people I don't trust," she said. "It's about mutual respect. It's not about my personal feelings. It's about getting better living conditions for my constituents."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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