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After decades of contemplation and debate, a group known as Better Together is recommending an end to the “Great Divorce” between St. Louis and St. Louis County.Better Together is proposing an ambitious plan to create a unified metro government and police department and limit municipalities' ability to levy sales taxes. The plan would be decided through a statewide vote.Proponents contend it will scrape away layers of local government that has been holding the St. Louis region back. Opponents believe the plan will create an unwieldy and large centralized government that could be implemented against the will of city and county residents.

Slay calls for merging city and county economic development agencies

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 28, 2011 - St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay is calling for a merger of the economic agencies in St. Louis and St. Louis County, saying it would be "a good and timely next step" toward his broader goal of eventually making the city a part of the county.

The mayor also plans to lobby the Regional Commerce and Growth Association to divest itself of its economic development function, so that the group also could be part of his vision for "a single development agency that works for St. Louis."

"That is a discussion I hope to begin in earnest when the RCGA announces its new director next month," Slay wrote. The RCGA just announced its legislative plans for 2012.

Earlier this summer, a group of visiting business leaders offered up similar regional advice.

Slay laid out his idea in a detailed blog post over the weekend. He wrote that a merger would help coordinate the region's approach toward economic development, while also reducing the existing costs for two separate professional staffs and two boards.

Slay is referring to the St. Louis Development Corporation, headed by the city's economic development director Rodney Crim, and the St. Louis County Economic Council, headed by the county's economic chief Denny Coleman. Both are quasi-public agencies.

Crim and Coleman, the mayor wrote, "have been seriously pursuing cooperation in economic development goals. A merger of agencies (at this point, feel free to imagine you can hear howls of protest) would be a good and timely next step."

Slay doesn't say how the idea has been received by St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, but the county executive previously had voiced support for allowing the city to enter the county, should voters approve the idea.

Slay is pressing his plan in the wake of two failures during the Missouri General Assembly's regular and special sessions to approve economic-development packages that included proposed tax breaks for the St. Louis region's combined city/county/RCGA effort to encourage China to locate a cargo hub at Lambert St. Louis International Airport.

Explained the mayor: "For the past year or so, I have focused attention on rationalizing economic development efforts in St. Louis. Currently, the city and county have separate economic development agencies, each with its own board of directors and professional staffs. They cooperate on some issues, compete on others, and work separately on most. To complicate the matter, the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association (RCGA) pursues an expensive economic development agenda of its own, largely independent of both the City and the county."

"That seems to me like two too many directions to be very successful," Slay wrote.

The mayor observed that a combined economic development agency might be a more palatable step toward a hoped-for regional vote to allow the city of St. Louis to become one of the roughly 90 communities in the county. Such a move would follow other such efforts, most notably the 1980s merger of the public hospitals then operated by the city and the county.

"Publicly, privately, and at every opportunity, I am a supporter of undoing the Great Divorce of 1876 that separated the city of St. Louis from St. Louis County," Slay wrote.  Such a stance is in line with many of his mayoral predecessors. But Slay, like his forebears, acknowledged that there are roadblocks.

"Many of you, particularly in the city and in parts of unincorporated St. Louis county and in a few forward-thinking munis, enthusiastically support that idea -- or something like it," Slay wrote. "Others, while supportive, have raised some of the constitutional and statutory issues that complicate even this modest level of reform."

But the ultimate obstacle, he conceded, is that "there are not the votes in St. Louis county to accept the city of St. Louis as a municipality. Not yet."

As Slay sees it, a combined economic agency -- and vision -- might help break the ice.

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