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Nicklaus: Civic group caps second year with job wins and some sound advice


New nonstop flights from St. Louis to Germany

Jason Hall, CEO of Greater St. Louis Inc., speaks about new nonstop flights from St. Louis Lambert International Airport to continental Europe via Lufthansa Airlines on Dec. 14, 2021, at the Greater St. Louis Inc. headquarters downtown.

Greater St. Louis Inc. certainly didn’t have a sophomore slump.

The civic organization, formed at the beginning of 2021 in a merger of four groups, pledged to bring order to the region’s often chaotic economic development efforts. Its first-year successes included landing a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt and crafting a 10-year job growth plan.

This year’s wins include a $25 million federal grant to fund a manufacturing technology center and a string of employer announcements totaling about 1,000 jobs.

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Chief Executive Jason Hall told me 2022 also was the year Greater St. Louis built its own capacity, recruiting key staffers from successful regions like Boston and San Francisco. Kurt Weigle, the new point person for downtown development, comes from New Orleans and Steven Pearce, the new chief business attraction officer, comes from Charlotte.

“It was another year of maturing, another year of scaling,” Hall said. “We are seeing better opportunities that this team is bringing to the table.”

Among this year’s wins were three factory expansions announced in a single week in October. Plants making auto parts in Wentzville, building products in Crystal City and battery components in South St. Louis represent more than $1 billion in investment, Hall said.

They represent an early payoff from Greater St. Louis’ emphasis on advanced manufacturing, one of five industry clusters highlighted in the group’s STL 2030 Jobs Plan. The federal technology grant, won in a competition among hundreds of regions, was a key part of the strategy.

“A macro trend is the resurgence of American manufacturing, and you have to be able to capitalize on macro trends,” Hall said.

St. Louis hasn’t always done that. Employment here has grown just 5.8% in 20 years, compared with 17.6% nationwide. Demographics — a population that’s aging and barely growing — are the region’s biggest challenge.

That, Hall said, is why his organization’s focus on inclusive growth is important. If employers need workers, he said, it’s crucial to create opportunities for groups that historically have had relatively low rates of workforce participation, including inner city residents and members of minority groups.

Hall isn’t shying away from other challenges, either, including crime and the large amount of vacant space downtown. Greater St. Louis was criticized for not mentioning crime in the 2030 jobs plan, but Hall now says public safety “is moving up the priority list for our members.”

Weigle, who arrived in November, will have more to say about a strategy for downtown, but Hall said it’s encouraging that the biggest empty building, the AT&T tower, has drawn interest from a developer.

Perhaps Greater St. Louis’ biggest accomplishment has been creating a strong, unified voice for the area’s business community. It has weighed in on legislative issues such as funding for the Missouri Technology Corp. and on ballot propositions such as last year’s tax increase for St. Louis Community College.

Recently, the group has advocated for a new airport terminal and issued a white paper on how local leaders should spend the Rams lawsuit windfall.

The document says the money should be invested in a long term trust fund or used for “catalytic, economy-building” projects. The implied warning is that if local governments use the money to plug short-term budget holes, the region will have missed a giant opportunity.

For too long, such consistent advocacy for pro-growth polices was either missing or highly diluted in St. Louis. The two-year-old Greater St. Louis organization has already scored big wins for the region, and more success lies ahead if political leaders will heed its advice.

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