St Louis City Reentering the County

St Louis City Reentering the County

I recently attended the FOCUS St Louis Breakfast Connections which had a panel of Dr Terry Jones, Ambassador Bert Walker, Chief of Staff Jeff Rainford, and Sr Policy Advisor Mike Jones on the topic of the City reentering the County (reentering, not a merger…big difference). Here are a handful of the highlights I found interesting:

  • Once we to combine, St Louis would be the 8th largest city in the USA
  • Right now we compete with each other, costing the region millions of dollars in tax incentives every year battling for corporations to move to the City or County
  • Representatives from the China Hub couldn’t care less that Berekely and Bridgeton are governed by completely different people or that the airport sits in the County but is owned and operated by the City…we are all St Louis to them
  • The split of City and County is now being dubbed as the “Great Divorce”
  • There is a real lack of diversity in St Louis politics
  • Chief of Staff Rainford shared his vision of St Louis in 20 years being boutique city with little change to the current population numbers, but a shift to primarily educated upper middle class, with the middle class in the suburbs…similar to most European cities.
  • There were a lot of major wins in the partnership (MSD, Zoo/Museum District) during the 60s but we have basically sat on our hands for the last 50 years
  • This initiative must be a bottom-up, grass roots one, not top down.
  • This will only happen when young people come into power because we understand globalization and competing in a world-wide economy.

Each panelist got the opportunity to speak and share their perspectives and points, many of which are above. While Mike Jones, an African-American veteran politician was speaking, he accurately discussed the lack of racial diversity in politics saying that he sometimes felt as if he was in Birmingham or even 1950s St Louis because often times he was the only person of color in the room at events like these and other political functions. He went on to share a metaphor that St Louis was like a college basketball team trying to compete for a national championship with a team of 12 white guys. I thought about that for a second and he was spot on with the fact that there is a real lack of racial diversity in the leadership of St Louis, and I can only imagine how difficult it has been for Mr Jones and other trailblazers like him.

It came time for Q&A, and I’m typically not one to speak up with questions or comments at these sorts of events, but Mr Jones’ line of discussion really compelled me to. Just as he is typically the only person of color in the room, I am typically one of the very few, if not only person under 30 or even 40 for that matter. So, I started by amending Jones’ metaphor by saying not only are we competing with 12 white guys but we are competing with a bunch of 40-60 year olds that think since they are getting their doctorates and still have academic eligibility that they should be the ones playing on the team. So, we are actually competing with 12 old white guys. Then I asked of the panel, what is currently and what could be done to engage the young people in the region, especially since they all agreed that it would be our generation that would be the ones that would see this thing through.

Mr Rainford talked about the things that he and Mayor Slay have and are doing. He mentioned how Mayor Slay, along with the leadership of Patrick Brown, have created the Vanguard Cabinet, to help capture the voices of young and talented people in the region, as well as giving them the forum, tools, and access to make real change happen. He also pointed out that majority of the Mayor’s staff is actually comprised of people under the age of 32. To me, both of these initiatives show Mayor Slay’s commitment to young people is more than political rhetoric but is being backed up with real actions.

Mr Jones then went on for 5+ minutes about how if you want power and want to create change, no one will give it to you, you just have to go out and take it. You have to learn the political ropes and get your butt kicked until you kick someone else’s and then once you are on top, you get to make the calls. He continued by pointing out several other political veterans in the crowd that waged political wars back in the 70s and 80s to overthrow the current establishment and take power. It was literally like he was puffing out his chest telling old war stories. His bottom line, if you want change, you have to take out those that stand in the way of change you want to make.

After the war stories had come to an end, I asked to respond, because I felt he was chastising me for saying people of my generation wanted to help make things better in our region without being willing to enter the half-truth, self-grandizing, cut throat world of politics. I am sorry, but not all of us that want to make a difference want to be in politics…I would probably go one step further and say that most people my age don’t want to be in politics so they CAN make a difference.

So, I made a couple of quick points:

  1. This is the exact type of “me-first” attitude that has created the divisive, parochial nature of St Louis, which has left us on the outside looking in when it comes to being seen as a top notch City.
  2. Young people aren’t looking to compete, we are looking to collaborate. We don’t care who gets the credit for improvements, we just want them to be achieved.

After I left, I think I got even more frustrated by the situation, because this is exactly the problem facing our Region. A real lack of visionary, or even quality leaders, that are willing to put their own political aspirations aside and work together with the people of this region to make St Louis a premier City, and not just win their next election.

Maybe Mr Jones is right in the fact that until the current leaders are displaced there won’t be any real change…but I would hate to think that is the case. There is such a vast base of knowledge and experience in our current leaders that if they would just learn to take a collaborative approach and tear down the silos that are destroying productivity, we would yield exponentially greater results than either the Old or the New could accomplish on their own.

Here is my challenge to the people and leaders of St Louis City and County.

Work together. We have to reduce duplication of efforts and build off of each other’s work to accomplish more together.

Come together. We must have political and commercial leaders in the region focus on the same goals and initiatives and pool their efforts and resources behind them not caring who gets the credit.

Bring together. The young people of the region must be engaged and brought to the table where their opinions are desired and heard. It will take a balance of experience and wisdom along with bravado and fresh ideas to push us forward.

Be together. We have to realize that we can no longer battle against each other if we want to not just survive, but thrive. We now compete in a global market whether we care to admit it or not. The rest of the world already knows this, but we must come to the realization that we are not St Louis City and St Louis County and St Clair County and St Charles County…


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