Monday, March 29, 2010

Downtown's Role in St. Louis' Competitiveness

I highly recommend checking out the Post-Dispatch's series "Can St. Louis Compete?" if you have not done so already.  And as with any of the Post-Dispatch's online articles, I also highly recommend avoiding the reader comments.

Anyway, the first two articles in the series have touched on some of the reasons for St. Louis' decline over the last half century, and the issues our region must address in order to turn things around.

Of course, our problems stem from a long list of items that each need to be tackled - balkanized government, education, taxation, insufficient access to venture capital, lack of innovation, among others.

The second installment of the series, "Finding a Niche," addresses St. Louis' reputation problem, which has caused the region to, at times, get passed over by companies looking to move or expand.  The article includes a quote from Doug Koch, chief talent officer for Brown Shoe, on one overarching problem that seems to find its way into many of our other problems - "We have not been good at blowing our own horn, and blowing it in a way that is effective."

I agree completely.  And to me, the civic inferiority complex - it would probably be more accurate to describe it as self-loathing - that so many in our region seem to suffer from is a direct result of decades of disinvestment in our central business district.

As middle-class residents moved to the suburbs in post-war St. Louis, an increasing number of jobs and employers followed.  As a result, downtown St. Louis suffered more than 50 years of decline, and a substantial segment of the population found itself living and working away from the urban core, creating a massive disconnect between our citizenry and our downtown.

A city's downtown, however, is where it derives its very identity.  In thriving, successful cities, even suburban residents can consider their regions' downtowns to be points of pride.  In St. Louis, on the other hand, we now have several generations of residents who are either completely apathetic/indifferent to the plight of downtown, or who harbor negative perceptions of it - people who consider Clayton to be the region's downtown.

It's more difficult for most people to take pride in a city with a ragged downtown, because now matter how much boasting to outsiders one does about St. Louis and all it has to offer - which is a lot - inevitably, the conversation will eventually come back to the state of our downtown.  Having a great Clayton or a great Creve Coeur will never solve that issue; downtown is our public face to the rest of the world.  And right now, that face is haggard and gaunt, with an overabundance of vacant buildings and surface lots, with a handful of urban planning blunders thrown in for good measure.  We need to put our best face forward, something we haven't done in years.

I remain convinced, however, that if more employers were to choose downtown, something that would revitalize our central business district and reconnect our residents with our city's identity, civic self-loathing would subside, and St. Louis could blow its own horn once again.


Anonymous said...

Downtown is actually safer and nicer than Clayton or West County. I know so many people, of ALL generations, who have left those two other places, as well as the CWE, to move Downtown. As for the naysayers and those apathetic to Downtown's plight, I say it's a good thing. Let the negative people stay in Clayton and Creve Coeur. Let only the positive 'can do' people promote, work and live downtown.

Mark Groth said...

^What defines a healthy Creve Coeur? And what possible impact could that have on St. Louis?

brad hogan said...

I'm fairly new to St Louis so I don't know how desolate downtown was in the past, but from what I've heard, it's making a ton of progress.

I live downtown now and I've lived in downtown districts of other cities as well (San Diego and Denver). St Louis downtown is actually really nice in my opinion and has the potential to match other major cities. If St Louis downtown wants to compete, the businesses need to prosper. Eventually people who work downtown will consider living downtown, which will fill more vacant condos and/or spark the unfinished condo projects. If more people work/live downtown, then obviously more restaurants and shops will open and then you're right up there with everyone else.

The fact is, St Louis has many parks scattered in the downtown area, which if fixed up, are something many downtowns do not have.

Enough of my ramblings... thanks for the post - great article.

Brad Hogan