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St. Louis Mayor Slay Leads Economic Development Efforts

April 11, 2005


St. Louis was visited recently by 80,000 rabid practitioners of college basketball fandom and seen by millions more watching the March rites on television. The city they experienced bore little resemblance to the city that last hosted the NCAA finals back in 1973.

That earlier city, like many of its peers, was hit hard by the exodus of its middle class to the suburbs — leaving behind an aging infrastructure of roads, parks, and sewers, a government that operated on equal parts paper and patronage, blocks of empty homes and buildings, and, worse, a city that no longer believed in itself.

Yet the same year that saw Bill Walton's stunning 44-point performance of UCLA unstripping the Tigers of Memphis State was also the year that the federal government approved St. Louis' first historic district: the then'shabby Victorian mansions and faded park of Lafayette Square. And that far-sighted action set in motion a process that three decades later reversed decades of population and employment decline.

The evidence of revival can be found everywhere.

Historic homes are being renovated throughout the city and vacant warehouses are being reborn as urban lofts. New homes are sprouting in areas that had not seen new investment for decades. Businesses are expanding their city operations while others are moving into the city. Districts like the Delmar Loop, Washington Avenue, and the City Museum are now counted among the most entertaining and unique places in the country. New restaurants are attracting diners from throughout the region. Suburban retailers are building new city locations and other innovative homegrown retailers are celebrating success. As a result, the city of St. Louis is retaking its place as the strongly beating heart of the central Midwest.

St. Louis Mayor Francis G. Slay says that taking advantage of what the city already has is the key to its success. "When you-re the mayor of a city that can go either way, you can-t be afraid of making bold moves, of taking risks," Slay often tells his staff and regional leaders. "You have to identify your city's strengths, like our historic neighborhoods, and capitalize on them. St. Louis is a unique city. We don-t aspire to be New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. We want St. Louis to be St. Louis — uniquely our own. But we want it to be the best it can be."

"You have to be honest about your city's weaknesses and do everything you can to improve, every minute of every hour of every day of every year."

"Most important, you have to build a great team_both within city government and with the business community, citizens, non-profit organizations, the federal government, state government, and other governments in the region. Everybody has to buy into the same brand."

"It is no coincidence that for the first time in five decades, more people are moving into the city than out," says Slay. Three decades after Lafayette Square was enrolled on the National Register, there are more than a dozen other historic districts in the city. St. Louis' historic ordinances are strictly enforced. Its Cultural Resources Office, the arbiter of historic development, is one of the busiest agencies of city government. And St. Louis nominates more buildings for inclusion on the National Register than almost any other city in the country.

Rehabilitating historic buildings costs much more than building something new in a green field. So St. Louis' elected officials convinced Missouri legislators to enact a state historic tax credit that made historic rehabilitation attractive to developers, as well as provided the foundation for rebuilding the market for real estate throughout the city.

Making a conscious effort to preserve the city's historic architectural and unique spaces, re-using and rebuilding whenever possible, and using codes and ordinances to control the direction and pace of change have created a city unlike most others. As a result, residential property values are up an average of 54 percent since 2001. Businesses are renewing their downtown leases and expanding their operations in other parts of the city. New businesses are moving in. St. Louis is once again holding onto its employment base, now accounting for nearly one out of every ten jobs in the state of Missouri.

The year Slay took office in 2001, problem properties and absentee landlords choked many city neighborhoods. Today, more than 5,000 problem property cases have been successfully resolved. The kinds of nuisances that can destroy a neighborhood are being eradicated, and deteriorated buildings are being brought up to code.

In 2001, far too many public works projects were stopped in their tracks. Today, most of those laggards are now under construction. In 2001, the police department and the rest of city government were strangers to each other. Today, they work as a team. In 2001, the city's lead poisoning prevention program was all but non-existent. Today, the city has a "Lead Safe St. Louis" action plan, and is one of the best performers in the country. In 2001, the plan for a life'sciences business park had been sitting on a shelf for two decades. Today, that business park is under construction.

Downtown St. Louis, the big set'shot for most Final Four television coverage, is experiencing a great revival. "This, too is the result of teamwork and a respect for history," says Slay. In 1997, St. Louis 2004, a civic effort led by former United States Senator John C. Danforth, released an action plan for the region. One of the plan's top priorities was the revitalization of downtown. That same year, Downtown Now!, an implementation group that included civic, business and community leaders, put together a plan that focused on the historic rehabilitation of four specific areas: the old garment and leather district along Washington Avenue, the largely vacant buildings of the central business district, the isolated and largely industrial riverfront, and the swath of urban green space that runs between city hall and the Arch.

After eight years of effort, empty nesters and new graduates now share loft living spaces along Washington Avenue; a new $400 million entertainment district is being mapped out along the riverfront; and nearly $3 billion has already been invested in rehabilitation and new construction in the central business district and along the Gateway Mall.

"Call it historic teamwork," says Slay.

For more information, contact Mayor Francis G. Slay at slayf@stlouiscity.com.