7 min read
Posted on 05.08.09
  • 7 min read
  • Posted on 05.08.09
  • Filed under
  • State of the City

Good morning.

President Lewis Reed, members of the Board of Aldermen, and honored guests, it is my privilege to address you about the State of the City of St. Louis.

Last month, I outlined an ambitious agenda for the coming four years.

In it, I suggested regional efforts - and regional solutions - to address such issues as poverty, healthcare, race relations, public transportation, green space, education, airports, and job creation. And I suggested that these compelling problems and their solutions could be accomplished by making major changes in how the region works together.

Considered together, the St. Louis region holds an important portion of the state's jobs, taxpayers, cultural institutions, builders, and banks. Our regional influence in the State Capitol should not be over-matched by the interests of those who contribute less to the state's well-being. Yet, session after session it is. Until we start speaking in unison, Jefferson City-both Democrats and Republicans-- will continue to ignore our constituents. They will divert our tax dollars, cap our tax credits, run our police department, and take our votes in November for granted.

Why haven't we figured this out?

There is a great irony here. I believe that most St. Louisans - St. Louisans who live in Shaw, Carondelet, Dogtown, Hyde Park, and Baden; St. Louisans who live in Clayton, Sunset Hills, and Florissant; and St. Louisans who live in Edwardsville and Belleville - are ready to work together. It is their leaders- in the business community and in elected positions - who hesitate.

That will most likely change in the coming years as these leaders have to make very difficult budget decisions - and as they hear from their constituents about the lack of quality jobs and from their employees about wage growth. What seems politically impossible today will become inevitable tomorrow.

Like every part of the country, the St. Louis region has been affected by the recession. Consumer spending is down, which means that sales tax revenues are down. It is difficult to borrow money, which means that business expansion, home construction, home rehabs, home sales - and the taxes they generate - are at best flat throughout the region. And City and county residents, Missouri and Illinois residents, pressed by cutbacks at work or by declining returns from their retirement accounts, are feeling the pinch from their property tax bills - and some are buying tea bags.

The very proof of this is in that big book I see on many of your desks. The City Budget you are working on right now is a very lean one. To make it balanced, the Budget Division and the Board of Estimate have recommended that you aldermen examine every cost center for efficiencies, and that you ask many City employees to make some very significant concessions, including taking unpaid furloughs.

Pulling all in the same direction, we will get a balanced budget next year that leaves essential City services intact and most City employees in place. But given the most likely economic conditions going forward, the City's budget, the county's budget, and budgets throughout the region are not going to be as simple to balance in the coming years.

Our region's economy has changed.

In the last century, our region grounded its economy on brewing beer, assembling cars, mining coal, making steel, and building airplanes. We were headquarters to some of the world's biggest, most important companies. As more stuff got built in other countries, we lost our manufacturing base. We lost some of our largest companies to mergers and acquisitions. Our hub carrier got gobbled up, and the new owner eliminated the hub.

Why this happened does not really matter.

If we do not work differently, and work together, to create a sustainable economy with a diversified economic base, we will certainly fail together. That is why we must begin the conversation of the region's unification.

I don't believe that the City comes to the region's table empty-handed. The City is a major center of population and jobs, of affordable entertainment and approachable arts, of first-class medicine and research, of green space, of higher education, of historic neighborhoods, and of energetic diversity. We have the only affordable housing trust fund, the only initiative to help families facing foreclosure, 90 percent of the region's services for the homeless, the only living wage law, and by far the strongest, most effective minority participation requirements. No one else in the region comes close.

And, in fact, the City's economic challenges, while daunting, are less severe than those in many other parts of the region. The problems created in the City by suburban flight in years past are now appearing in the inner suburbs. Foreclosures, homelessness, abandoned properties, and job loss are now seen everywhere in the region.

Over the more than five decades since 1950, our City economy has already made a huge transition-from an economy based largely on manufacturing to an economy that is increasingly diverse. While other parts of the region and the country are now beginning to make the transition to a new economy, the City's transition, while not complete, is far ahead of the curve. Change is the overriding characteristic of tomorrow's economy-and we are close friends with change and have embraced it.

We have evidence that our efforts to reshape our economy are working. Until the nation's economy nosedived, crime, poverty and homelessness were down dramatically in the City of St. Louis.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics census of the 355 largest county units in the country, the City of St. Louis showed growth in its jobs in the first quarter of 2008. St. Louis was 7th in the entire country in wage growth in the second quarter of 2008; and 21st in job growth and 18th in wage growth in the third quarter.

Our mixed-use geography is more resistant to recessionary impacts than are single-focus geographies. If single-family homes or condominiums won't work, we can build stores, offices and apartments. And new homes in City neighborhoods produce new residents--whether the new homes are sold or whether they are rented

Recent studies show that mixed-use urban environments like ours are the future. A recent poll conducted by a national marketing firm indicates that 77 percent of Americans born after 1981 want to live in an "urban core." These younger people (my own children and yours), with their new talents, their energy, and their children and dogs, are the foundation of a sustainable future for the St. Louis region - sustainable in terms of the environment, and sustainable in terms of having the capacity to grow and change as the world changes around us.

Our job - in my office and in this chamber - is to build them the kind of urban core that they will want. If we do that, the City will thrive-and so will the region.

Here in the City that means reforms that begin with small commitments - limiting the City's use of pesticides, improving the City's recycling program, installing energy efficient lighting - and move on to larger ones - updating the building codes to reflect LEED certification, retrofitting municipal buildings with energy efficient upgrades, weatherizing low-income homes, fixing our sewers, and reforming our troubled public transit system.

It is not unreasonable to expect the City to take the lead in progressive policies in the region - and one way you can do that is by discussing, modifying as necessary, and passing Alderwoman Lyda Krewson's smoke-free bill. Nothing quite says "regressive place to live" to young people like resisting a change already made in 29 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

ARRA, President Barack Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also gives the City plenty of new ways to prepare ourselves for the future.

The City will receive $3.7 million in new Energy Block Grant funding and $40 million in funding to sustain our aging infrastructure and bring it to modern standards.

While Metro will not get any of the operating subsidies it desperately needs from ARRA, Metro will get $39 million to fix Eads Bridge and the other parts of the original MetroLink alignment.

The St. Louis Housing Authority will receive $18 million in capital funding-the Authority will use $14 million of this to completely rehabilitate James House in the 4th Ward, and the remainder to replace public housing in other wards. ARRA is also investing in summer jobs for our teens and young adults, to give them early work experience and help them develop a positive vision for how, as adults, they will fit into society's future.

And, as other federal stimulus money is made available, we must look for less obvious opportunities to invest dollars in our community to make it stronger. Identifying those opportunities will require collaboration and new partnerships both within City government and with the broader community.

It is important to understand this federal stimulus money for what it is. It is a loan from our children. They, not most of us, will be paying it back it back in the future. Wasting any part of it is stealing from our own children. I urge you to join me in being vigilant.

Aldermen, there is plenty of work ahead of us in the next year.

By the actions you take in this chamber, you can help City workers find good jobs by expanding the HIRE St. Louis initiative you began last year. You can help City residents find good homes in safe neighborhoods by supporting private investment initiatives of all kinds throughout the City. You can help City parents find good educations for their children by working with those innovators who hope to open great new schools in your neighborhoods. You can create a tax structure that is fair, progressive and promotes economic growth.

I look forward to working with all of you - and with everyone else who wants to move our City - and our region - forward.

It will take a mix of pragmatism, a belief in ourselves, and leadership. But, I believe St. Louis' best days lie ahead.

Thank you and God bless St. Louis.