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$20 million loan for NGA property narrowly secures first-round aldermanic approval

An aerial view of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency at 3200 South 2nd Street, the current headquarters for NGA West.
National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, NGA

Legislation authorizing the city of St. Louis to borrow as much as $20 million to buy land to keep a major employer within the city's borders narrowly squeaked through preliminary approval on Thursday.

The Board of Aldermen approved the measure Thursday by a 13-11-1 vote amid confusion about the final outcome. It needs one more vote before going to Mayor Francis Slay's desk.

The city plans to use the $20 million to purchase the property the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency needs at its proposed site in north city, one of four possible places for relocation. To cover the costs of the loan, the city will refinance 1520 Market, known as City Hall West, and fold the $7.8 million still owed on that mortgage into the new loan, leaving $13 million available for north side properties. A second city property, at 1415 N. 13th St. that houses the Forestry division, will also be offered for collateral. A third building, the streets headquarters at 1900 Hampton Ave., is no longer being offered to back the loan. 

The agency is running out of space at its current location, east of the Anheuser-Busch brewery. The city is competing with locations in St. Clair County, Fenton and Mehlville.

"These monies are required so that we can get total site assembly and to do some infrastructure, things that have to be in place prior to them selecting us, and I think that this was the most feasible means for us to go ahead and move forward with this project," said Alderman Tammika Hubbard. The north-side site is in her 5th Ward. "I think it's important to look at the money that we're investing, but also to look at the social impact that this will have on a community that has experiences 60 years of disinvestment."

Narrow support

Just one other alderman -- Marlene Davis of the 19th Ward -- rose to give unqualified support to the proposed loan.

"Any time you want to do large development, it's going to be like this," Davis said. "If you look at any other jurisdiction, you'll find out that's how they do business. We're making the moves to be prepared if we are selected. You can't do it after we're selected, because it takes too long."

Support from others, like 28th Ward alderman Lyda Krewson, was much more muted.

"I'm really disappointed that we couldn't find this money somewhere else," she said. "I do understand that we need to do whatever we have to do to keep the NGA jobs in St. Louis, and I also understand that if you're trying to negotiate to buy people's properties that you've got to have the funds to pay them. I wish that we would have considered other options, and I wish we would have known about this more than 10 days ago." 

The vast majority of those who spoke were firmly against giving any additional city dollars to troubled developer Paul McKee. He owns the majority of the properties the city needs to assemble for the NGA site. Officials may also have to use eminent domain on owner-occupied houses and successful businesses.

"This bill is a moral and financial mistake," said Alderman Sharon Tyus, long a sharp critic of McKee and his Northside Regeneration Initiative. "Let’s talk about what $13 million would do not for one ward, not for the 5th ward, but just for the strip that calls itself Natural Bridge and have a plan to be bringing some commerce there. How many people would that serve there?"

Hubbard said she's focused solely on her constituents.

"People have some concerns about McKee, but that’s not who I’m here to defend I’m here to defend the people of the 5th ward who need some development in their community."

Alderman Antonio French pointed out that the city is taking out a loan to purchase properties it owned less than 24 months ago. As St. Louis Public Radio has reported. McKee purchased more than 260 parcels in the NGA footprint directly from the city. Scott Ogilvie, the alderman from the 24th Ward, decried the fact that the federal government had once again put the city's back against the wall.

"If NGA selects this site, this will seem like a great move, like we threaded the needle, like the city pulled a rabbit out of a hat," Ogilvie said. "If NGA doesn't select the site, though, there's a fair chance that we're going to end up owning 100 acres that we don't have another buyer for, and we're going to have 20 years of debt on that property."

Counting confusion

Though Ogilvie spoke against the measure, he ended up missing the final vote -- a process that led to momentary confusion for nearly everyone on the floor. 

Here's the roll call. Unlike final passage, this intermediate step requires just a majority of those present, not of those elected.

  • Ayes -- Aldermen Flowers, Bosley, Hubbard, Coatar, Conway, Ortmann, Vollmer, Murphy, Baringer, Roddy, Davis, Boyd, Williamson
  • Nays --Aldermen Tyus, Moore, Villa, Arnowitz, Green, Kennedy, French, Vaccaro, Carter, Williamson, Krewson and President Reed
  • Present -- Alderman Spencer
  • Did not vote -- Aldermen Ingrassia, Howard, Ogilvie and Cohn

Clerks initially counted 12 no's, which meant the measure would have failed. Krewson, though she had spoken in support, likely voted no to be able to request a recount if necessary. The correct vote was 13-11-1, however, just enough support from the 25 aldermen present. 

Alderman Lyda Krewson, D-28th Ward, is sponsoring a big overhaul of the city's business regulations.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Ald. Lyda Krewson

That meant the four absent aldermen could have played a major role in the result. Christine Ingrassia of the 6th Ward and Carol Howard of the 14th Ward were excused. Contacted after the meeting, Ogilvie said he probably would have voted no, though that likely would not have changed the outcome because Krewson would have switched her vote to yes. Alderman Shane Cohn did not return a call for comment.

The measure needs one more aldermanic vote before it reaches Mayor Francis Slay's desk. The NGA will pick its new site in 2016.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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