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Right here in River City: PBS NewsHour's Gwen Ifill hosts town hall in St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 29, 2009 - It may have been a coincidence that as NewsHour correspondent Gwen Ifill faced the panel at Tuesday night's town hall meeting at the studio of KETC, former Sen. John C. Danforth was on the right and Rep. Lacy Clay, D-Mo., was toward the left. But their answers conformed to their position on the stage.

From Ifill's opening question, asking panelists to evaluate President Barack Obama's first days in office, to a series of issues broached by her and by members of the audience, Danforth's view reflected a preference for a more limited role by the federal government than the administration has shown, while Clay was clearly more of a fan of Obama's more expansive approach.

While acknowledging that Obama is an effective politician who has made great progress on his agenda, Danforth expressed concern for "the aggregation of power in the presidency."

"When he can fire the president of General Motors," he added, "that is a very serious misdirection for the country, and I'm really concerned that there has not been more discussion about it."

Clay countered that compared with the previous eight years, during which he said there was no consensus about what was really important to the United States, Obama's clear direction and leadership in passing the $787 billion stimulus package -- along with banning torture, moving to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and other accomplishments -- represented a welcome change.

"If we had done nothing," he said of the stimulus package, "I wonder where our country would be."

Panelist Chris Krehmeyer, president and CEO of the group Beyond Housing, took a stance somewhat in the middle. He expressed appreciation for how Obama has "provided a sense that there's a steady hand at the wheel." But he also said he wants to make sure that a close eye is kept on how stimulus money is spent, particularly in housing, "so we don't wake up in five years and ask. 'Where did all the money go?'"

In a series of questions from the audience -- raising issues like schools, political and ideological infighting, the war on terror, financial bailouts and more -- the panelists' views remain consistent. Danforth returned repeatedly to the issue of taking a long view and making sure there is an "exit strategy" for the administration's approach to the economic crisis.

"I do think for an emergency, you've got to spend more money," he said, "but this is huge.

"Who is going to pay for it? What about our children? What about our grandchildren?"

On education, Clay emphasized that students in poorer schools have to get the attention they deserve. But Krehmeyer cautioned that money and solutions are needed for more than the school districts themselves.

"It's not just about buildings and programs," he said. "It's about families and neighborhoods."

And asked what they thought Obama could have done differently in his first 100 days, Krehmeyer didn't hesitate:

"I'd get a different dog."

Read the Beacon's earlier coverage of NewsHour forums in the St. Louis area:

Even before President Barack Obama decided to mark his 100th day in office with a visit to the St. Louis area, the NewsHour on PBS decided that the area was a perfect spot to take the pulse of the nation.

In a series of panel discussions over the past 10 days, NewsHour correspondents have met with local leaders to talk about the economy, development, the importance of science and more.

Edited versions of the sessions will be aired this week on KETC-Channel 9 as part of the NewsHour's spotlight on St. Louis. Here is an advance look at what the panelists had to say.

Problems but advantages, t00

The people in charge of selling St. Louis to the rest of the world have a double-edged message in these tough times: The area hasn't fallen that far into a deep economic hole because it wasn't flying that high in the first place.

As Kitty Ratcliffe, head of the regional Convention and Visitors Commission put it on Monday, recalling the outrage that companies like AIG stirred up when they staged lavish retreats at glitzy getaways: Noting that boondoggle and St. Louis are not terms usually found in the same sentence, she added, "A corporation is not going to be criticized for holding a meeting in St. Louis."

NewsHour moderator Gwen Ifill summed it up in her introduction to the forum on downtown development at the Federal Reserve Bank Monday morning, "it's been a tough time for a long time in St. Louis."

But with economic indicators down in many parts of the nation, Ratcliffe and her fellow panelists took the opportunity to run down the long list of what they consider to be the area's major advantages: central location, affordable housing, professional sports teams, a highly skilled workforce and a quality of life and cost of living that have many other areas beat.

Rodney Crim, executive director of the St. Louis Development Corp., emphasized the area's architecture and transportation. Jim Alexander, a vice president at the Regional Chamber and Growth Association, pointed to the 25 colleges and universities in the region, saying they ranked St. Louis in the top 10 metropolitan areas in the number of degrees awarded, providing businesses a steady stream of well-educated workers.

Howard Wall, a vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank, noted the importance of small businesses to the region, which prompted Crim to talk about the business assistance centers that help walk would-be business owners through the steps needed to get started.

Unlike his three fellow local panel members, Wall consistently sounded cautionary notes -- so much so that Ifill characterized him as the skunk at the party.

Wall was particularly critical of the condition of city public schools. He warned also that economic recovery may take longer in this region than in other places because the economy here is so dependent on manufacturing. Such industry will require a longer period to gear up.

He did note, however, that 90 small businesses had opened downtown in the past five years, adding: "They provide the flavor of downtown."

Not everything is rosy about St. Louis, of course. "We're not being Pollyannish about this," Ratcliffe insisted.

Still, said Alexander, "We have to continue selling our strengths. We have to make sure we market our brand."

Growing agriculture's potential

Crops can grow with sunlight and water and fertilizer, but for agriculture to truly flourish, it will need two more crucial elements -- research and investment.

That was the message from panelists at the Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur in their April 22 discussion moderated by the NewsHour's Judy Woodruff.

They discussed a range of issues facing agriculture today and tomorrow, from who will be willing to run the farms of the future to how will the world be fed as the population grows and the acreage devoted to growing crops continues to shrink.

But most of the questions came back to how scientific and academic research can be used to improve the growing of crops, and how the venture capital that has been so vital to the growth of other areas of the new economy can be drawn to the farm.

William H. Danforth has looked at the issue from several perspectives -- as a medical doctor, as the longtime chancellor of Washington University and as the current chairman of the board of the plant science center that bears his family's name. He noted that compared with the funding of federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, money for the Department of Agriculture lags far behind.

"This is a great opportunity to bring the standards of agricultural research up to the standards of medical research," Danforth said. He noted that in the recent federal stimulus package, while NIH and the National Science Foundation got billions of dollars each, the USDA got nothing.

Roger Beachy, president of the plant science center, added that in the quest to improve agricultural efficiency -- "how to get more crop per drop" -- there needs to be a stronger effort to use the best scientific knowledge available. "Basic information is critical," he said.

Added Victoria Gonzalez, the president and CEO of the Nidus Center, which helps nurture scientific entrepreneurs: "It all starts with research."

But it also starts with money. Derek Rapp, the president of Divergence Inc., which uses biotechnology to improve sustainable food production, said venture capitalists need to be convinced that agriculture is a good place to invest not only for financial gain but also to help meet the world's future food needs.

Noting that St. Louis benefits from having Washington U., the University of Missouri, Monsanto and other companies and institutions that can demonstrate how science can help society, Rapp said, "We're able to see the opportunities more easily than some other areas of the country that don't have these examples of success."

Gonzalez said, "We are focused on is getting entrepreneurs excited about this" because of the challenges and the opportunities that agriculture offers.

But Ted Medlin, a lawyer who returned to southeast Missouri to operate a family farm operation, noted that without the ability to operate with such financial help, younger people may be better off not going into agriculture in the first place. With equipment costs in the six figures and the uncertainties of prices, weather and other variables, he asked, "Who is going to follow this present generation into farming?"

East Side Story

The $787 billion in Obama's federal stimulus package may have lifted the spirits of many Americans who are going through tough economic times. But the real impact is yet to seen, according to Debra Moore, the executive director of the St. Clair County Intergovernmental Grants Department.

"It has not trickled down to this local level as much as we would have liked," Moore said at an April 20 panel discussion on the Metro East economy moderated by Spencer Michels of PBS. Moore added that she thinks the administration in Washington may not have realized how bad things really are in some areas.

The discussion was convened at Southwestern Illinois College to talk about how the recession has affected the area and what is being done to dig out. Topics included the importance of higher education, the kinds of positions that will be available in coming years and how government and private business have to work together to get things done.

Moore says that a good example of the last is the joint use facility at Scott Air Force Base. Though the lack of regular passenger service at MidAmerica Airport has led some to criticize the project, supporters say it is justified by its role in conjunction with Scott and its use as a freight airport.

Moore cited "stick-to-it-iveness" on the part of everyone involved as the way it got done.

"If you have such a facility in your community," she said, "you have to be very aggressive to go out and build relationships to make it a success."

Georgia Costello, president of Southwestern Illinois College, said hard work is one way to get things done; being able to take the long view is another. "No matter how bad things get," she said, "you still have to have a vision out there."

Such vision includes being able to figure out what kinds of jobs the area will need in the coming months and years, then being flexible enough to offer the right training. For Metro East, said panelists including Patrick McKeehan, executive director of the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, such industries include health care, freight handling and manufacturing.

Two factors brought up by Michels that may hurt Metro East are the Illinois corruption case against former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was ousted from office earlier this year, and the long-time negative reputation of East St. Louis. Panelists didn't try to deny the problems, but they said each has to be overcome.

On the Blagojevich problem, Costello said simply: "That was yesterday; this is today."

As far as East St. Louis is concerned, Moore noted that the community's longstanding problems must be solved, not ignored. The kinds of efforts that will work for the rest of the region -- education, financial investment and public-private cooperation -- are especially needed there, she said.

"You cannot separate East St. Louis from Southwestern Illinois or from the rest of the St. Louis metropolitan area," she said. 

The colonoscopy index

David Ross, the president of Barnes-Jewish St. Peters Hospital, has a unique way of looking at how the economic downturn has affected St. Charles County. Call it the colonoscopy index.

"People are putting off diagnostic procedures," Ross said during a panel discussion at Lindenwood University on April 17.

In the past, elective procedures such as a colonoscopy may have appeared to be routine. Now, faced with rising deductibles on their health insurance and the specter of losing a job, Ross said, people have been finding them far less palatable, financially if not physically.

"They'd rather spend the money for food for their family or gas for their automobile," Ross.

Responding to questions from NewsHour economics expert Paul Solman as well as the audience, the panel -- including Ross; Randy Schilling, president and CEO of Quilogy, a technology firm; Brenda Newberry, president of the Newberry Group, a technology consulting company; John McGuire, head of St. Charles Community College; and James D. Evans, president of Lindenwood -- discussed topics ranging from jobs to energy to education to the effect of the federal stimulus package.

The college presidents noted that the recession has had a varied effect on their campuses. Applications are down at Lindenwood, Evans said, because students are worried about whether they can afford to attend, and the value of its endowment has dropped more than 25 percent.

At the community college, though, McGuire noted that the traditional response to hard times has taken place -- enrollment is up as employment is down. "It's a good place to hide out," he said.

Still, he said, with assessed valuation of property on the skids, the college's public support has taken a hit.

Panelists agreed that targeted investments -- a nicer name for the now-discredited earmarks -- need to be tied to a vision of the future that will make the stimulus money pay off.

They also agreed that though there have been times when St. Charles County has seemed to be out of step with the rest of the area, such as the vote against the expansion of MetroLink, the fate of the city of St. Louis is inevitably and inextricably tied to the success of other parts of the region.

"Just because we have a business in St. Charles and live in St. Charles doesn't mean we don't support the city," Newberry said.

Added Schilling: "It is incredibly important in terms of how we are perceived in the rest of the country."

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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