The Better Together plan to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County was polarizing, but there was one aspect that many acknowledged would have been a big win for the region — a single vision for economic development.
Now the question for many economic development leaders is how to move forward with that vision with Better Together being put on hiatus this week.
Experts say that under the status quo, the regional economy has lagged for more than a decade, in part because economic development groups have spun in circles using tax incentives to compete for the same business.
“Really it’s just moving jobs around the region, moving consumption dollars around the region. That kind of fiscal competition for sales-tax revenue really is a waste of our time and energy,” said University of Missouri-St. Louis professor Todd Swanstrom, who teaches community collaboration and public policy administration.
Regardless of being for or against the Better Together plan, many people in the business community agree that in order to grow the economy, there needs to be greater collaboration between the different government economic development offices, as well as those in the private sector. Exactly how that will look remains to be seen.
Back to the status quo
Five years ago, Brian Murphy conducted a study on the region’s economic challenges for the Better Together initiative. Murphy is the owner of BAM Contracting and previously served as the director of community and business development for St. Louis. What he found in his study was that fragmentation was hurting the attraction of businesses to the whole region.
“From an economic development standpoint, as a region, we are not doing very well. Particularly with neighbors around us who are making investments in their infrastructure and trying to move forward to attract new people and also attract commerce, jobs, quite frankly,” he said, noting the economic success in particular of Kansas City.
“The business leadership and the community, certainly they’re fighting about some of the same things we’re fighting about, but they’re actually getting something accomplished — and their economy is growing,” he said.
Murphy didn’t see the Better Together plan as a fix-all, but he said it would have been a start.
David Leezer, director of economic development in St. Charles, sees it the same way. In his eyes, the region is facing a problem that has more to do with optics than substance.
“On a substance issue, we still have a really strong network of economic development partnerships in place,” he said, noting in particular the recent launch of Alliance STL under the leadership of Steve Johnson, a veteran in regional economic development.
Over the last few years, Leezer says he’s built up more awareness of the other economic development projects in the region. One example he points out is that his city penned a letter of support for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to move into St. Louis, even though one option was in St. Charles County.
Leezer said that developments like these and others mean that Better Together’s withdrawal of the plan won’t take a major hit to economic development.
“We’ve got a better story to tell; we just need to tell it over the noise of the Better Together setback,” he said.
Other business leaders like Cortex CEO Dennis Lower echoed that sentiment.
“The true casualty of Better Together’s decision would be a victory lap by those who opposed the effort signifying the ‘battle’ was won; now let’s get back to business as usual,” he said.
That means making space for a new dialogue on common ground, he said.
Who will lead the charge?
In the wake of Better Together’s demise, groups like the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis are advocating for the launch of a Board of Freeholders which could come up with a new plan for regional cooperation.
Moving forward, Leezer said he’s looking to those groups as well as others who opposed the Better Together plan to craft something that works for everyone. And in the meantime, he believes groups like the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership are critical.
Swanstrom said the region still needs to focus on being less competitive.
“In the wake of this, we need some way to create a broader economic development collaboration in the region,” he said.
The way to do that for the long term, he said, is by focusing on something that was left out of the Better Together plan all along: education.
“One thing that concerns me the most is that we need to elevate our high school graduation rate, our college attendance rate, our college graduation rate. We need to address the educational inequities that exist,” Swanstrom said. “Education is really important if you’re talking about economic development in the long run.”
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