St. Louis is a city searching for hope. After decades of decline and population loss, the St. Louis region, like a busted blackjack player eyeing the dealer while thumbing his last two chips, is constantly looking for that next big thing that’s going to turn it all around.
This week that hope comes in the form of another proposal for a Major League Soccer team and new downtown stadium. Before that it was a new Rams football stadium. Before that it was Paul McKee’s $8.1 billion bluff. Before that it was a China Hub at Lambert Airport. The list goes on and on. With each big idea comes the promise of millions, if not billions, of dollars in economic impact trickling down to improve the lives of average St. Louisans.
Let me once again propose a small, humble idea: If we fix the small stuff, big things will follow.
People aren’t fleeing the city because we don’t have enough sports teams. People are fleeing the city because of the quality-of-life issues plaguing most neighborhoods: Too much trash in the alleys; a city bureaucracy that makes it tough to open a business or rehab property; vacant (mostly city-owned) properties with high grass, ugly exteriors and no plans for revitalization. And crime! Crime, crime, crime. The sounds of gunshots in the distance. The stories on morning TV newscasts of multiple people shot overnight. Too often, children are the victims. It’s scary.
These are the issues that, if addressed, will turn around this city’s fortunes. It won’t be a single $1 billion idea that will save St. Louis. It will be ten thousand $100,000 ideas. Hundreds of new small businesses. Rehabbing houses that have sat vacant for decades. Creating an environment that is supportive of those people willing to risk their own money, indeed their own lives, to rebuild the most forgotten and neglected areas of our city.
Instead, we see time and time again the wants of the few are funded before the needs of the many. The $51 million for the still-yet-to-open Loop Trolley. The $135 million in public money for the Gateway Arch renovation. The $43 million in tax credits received by developer Paul McKee. Meanwhile, many streets and alleys in some of the most populated neighborhoods of north St. Louis are nearly undrivable. School buildings sit empty and deteriorating. Parks go without the most basic maintenance. And thousands of homes sit vacant with no plan or incentives to get them occupied again.
St. Louis needs hope, but St. Louis needs leadership even more. Leadership recognizes that the lifeblood of a city is its people. And St. Louis has been bleeding people at an alarming rate for years. While it’s tempting to spend millions on the big ideas we hope will attract new people to come to our city, the fact is that attracting new people isn’t our biggest problem. It’s keeping the people that are already here that we need to get better at. To put it another way, if St. Louis had a 0% growth rate next year, that would be our best rate in over a half century.
We must invest in improving the quality of life in the neighborhoods that are losing population at the fastest rates so we can stop the bleeding. The people who live in these parts of town are also searching for hope. And neither soccer stadiums, Loop Trolleys nor quarter-billion-dollar Archground improvements are going to do it.
The needs of the many must outweigh the wants of the few. Lots of people want soccer. But many more people need hope in our neighborhoods. And that’s what officials in City Hall should be spending their time on.