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Slay taps Wessels as director for city's Community Development Administration

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay has appointed Alderman Fred Wessels to serve as director of the city’s Community Development Administration.

It's a move that will conclude the legislative career of one of the Board of Aldermen’s longest serving members.

The CDA, among other things, administers federal funds for housing, community and economic development programs. It's also responsible for administering the city's share of federal community development block grants.

Wessels will replace Jill Claybour, who is retiring. 

“Fred brings a unique combination of executive management, public service and city know-how to CDA,” Slay said in a statement. “He knows how to run things, knows our city’s challenges and opportunities as well as anyone, and knows how CDA works.”

In an interview, Wessels said he and Slay had been talking about the possibility of him taking over for Claybour for a few months. He added it was "a tough decision for me to make."

"I think it’s an honor to be offered the job by Mayor Slay," he added. 

Wessels said he will resign from his current aldermanic post on Dec. 31. He will take over as director of CDA the next day.

Wessels is the longtime chairman of the Board of Aldermen’s Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee. That’s the committee that recently considered – and approved -- bills aimed at kick-starting Paul McKee’s NorthSide Regeneration project.

The HUDZ committee was also the venue that wrestled with major changes to how community development block grants were divided. Prompted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, federal block grants were distributed this year through a points-based bidding process administered by the CDA. That was a shift from earlier years, when the money was split up by ward.

Proponents of the new system point to the possibility of funding bigger projects that go beyond a single ward. They also say that the new system may provide greater confidence for nonprofits and corporations to contribute funds to projects.

But numerous aldermen took issue with the initial distribution of funds, noting that many initiatives – including community development organizations and community education programs – were cut off. And other aldermen have contended that the new system is too aloof and bureaucratic, adding that it doesn't provide enough opportunity for community input.

Wessels said his “number one project” would be submitting to HUD a five-year plan regarding the city's use of federal block grants. He said he’ll be working with “public and private stakeholders,” including aldermen, city officials and private nonprofit groups, to get that goal accomplished.

And he added he's hoping to build next year on this year's major changes to the program.

“HUD has told the city in no uncertain terms that the process of allocating block grants needs to change,” Wessels said. “And that process began this year. It needs to continue to evolve, and I plan to see that happen. The block grant money, which is limited, needs to be used in the most strategic ways that will benefit the most folks.”

“And that’s not going to make everybody happy,” he added. “But we need to build on our strengths and that’s clear.”

End of an era

Wessels was first elected to the Board of Aldermen in 1985, making him one of the Board’s most senior members. He made an unsuccessful run for city treasurer last year, coming in second to Tishaura Jones. He was re-elected to his aldermanic seat earlier this year with no opposition.

Wessels -- a veteran of the Vietnam War -- spent seven years as the administrator at St. Louis City Hospital and eventually became chief administrator. He is executive director of the St. Louis Peregrine Society, which provides services to cancer patients in the St. Louis region.

"I was lucky enough to have two jobs I really enjoyed," Wessels said. 

He also served as the board's majority floor leader. After his resignation, Alderman Joe Roddy, D-17th Ward, will take that position. Roddy will also be first in line to take over as chairman of the HUDZ committee.

The city’s Democratic Central Committee will nominate Wessels' replacement to run in a special election next year. The 13th Ward encompasses neighborhoods in southeast St. Louis, including Dutchtown, Holly Hills, Southampton and Princeton Heights.

Wessels said he'll miss his "constituents, who are really I think understanding people and easy to serve." And he said he'll "take away some wonderful memories of people I served with and some of things we’ve been able to accomplish in 29 years." 

"I’ll miss the debate," he added. "They say that city politics is a contact sport. I enjoy contact, so I’ll miss it."

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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