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Officials offer high praise - but no firm financial commitment -- to Arch project

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 10, 2010 - As U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and others kept repeating Friday, as they stood on the East St. Louis shore of the Mississippi River, it's not just about the view.

It's really about the Gateway Arch.

"This amazing piece of architecture over my shoulder, we all believe it belongs to us," said U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. "Everyone mentions the Arch."

And by "us," McCaskill was referring to the inhabitants on both sides of the river who live, work or play within the shadow of the national landmark that has dominated the St. Louis skyline for close to half a century.

Salazar and U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood headlined an impressive list of officials from Washington, Illinois and Missouri -- public and private -- who turned out Friday to emphasize their support of a plan to improve and expand the Arch grounds.

When complete, the envisioned final product would include the land the group stood upon in East St. Louis, directly across the river.

"We can create one of the iconic parks in America,'' Salazar said.

LaHood added that Friday's news conference reflected a shared vision in support of "a magnificant project."

East St. Louis Mayor Alvin L. Parks called the effort "an example of big ideas and big dreams matching up with people willing to work hard."

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay touted the project as "transformative" for the region.

But all acknowledged the challenge of finding the money. Although Friday's participants balked at estimating a cost, earlier estimates have put the pricetag at $300 million -- a daunting figure at a time of belt-tightening on federal, state and local levels.

McCaskill emphasized that "a big part of this will come from the private sector," but acknowledged that public financial support likely hinged on "economic recovery over the next 18 months."

The design firm of Michael van Valkenburgh Associates of New York, which was chosen in September, plans to unveil its vision of the project on Jan. 24.

Once the plan and the financing have been worked out, the target is to complete the project by October 2015.

"We're going to try really hard to make this happen," McCaskill said.

Salazar dismissed questions as to whether such a project should be considered "pork'' during tough economic times.

"It's about heritage," he said.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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