St. Louis mayor assesses city-business team effort to spur growth

When you park your car in downtown St. Louis these days, you may be surprised to see a strikingly commercial message on the government parking meter. One Yellow Cab Company ad, for instance, gives a telephone number and invites you to ''leave your parking problems to us.''

It's all part of a business-city team effort to add some new revenue to city coffers while helping local businesses - an idea a number of other cities are on the verge of copying. ''We pick up a quarter of a million dollars a year on it - you take what you can get,'' notes Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr.

St. Louis, city of the famed Gateway Arch, has been hit harder by the recession and federal budget cuts than many of the nation's other aging industrial hubs. Over the last 30 years the small city core, restricted to a tight 61 square miles after the city split from St. Louis County over a century ago, has lost close to half its population. And at one point a few years ago St. Louis leaned on federal funds for almost half of its operating budget.

The challenge of surmounting these obstacles has not been easy. And St. Louis is still far from the boom town that Mayor Schoemehl, after his election two years ago, predicted it would become. But the city has been slowly adjusting to the new realities and significant progress is clearly under way.

In an interview in his spacious City Hall office, Schoemehl spells out a few of those forward steps and talks about where he'd like to take the city if he had the money - and the cooperation of the 91 surrounding towns in St. Louis County - to do it.

In retrospect, he now argues that the city's population loss and the federal cuts, while both unwelcome, have had some positive effects.

In response to the cuts, the city was forced to take a number of steps, from automating its trash pickup service to closing down a costly city-operated, long-term health-care facility and transferring hundreds of patients to private nursing homes.

In all, the city cut back on its work force by more than one-third. Yet a survey last August by the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, he says, showed that the level of general satisfaction with city services is still very high.

''The city needed restructuring in the worst way,'' Schoemehl concedes. ''Things were out of control. Whenever you can lay off 35 percent of your employees and still carry on business as usual, it's pretty obvious there was a need for a serious look at how money was being spent.''

Also, the mayor says, much of the abandoned housing left behind by the first wave of the population exodus during the late 1950s and '60s has since been leveled. ''We got rid of most of the massive tenement slums,'' he says, ''and the quality of life in the city has improved.'' Even so, St. Louis, which is building 1,200 new housing units this year, the highest total in five years, has apparently saved much of its best old housing as well. It rates right at the top nationally for its neighborhood revitalization efforts.

Though St. Louis has snared no major new industries or businesses in the last few years, Schoemehl stresses that two of the seven suburban and urban shopping malls currently under construction in the United States are being built in downtown St. Louis. And the long-planned but controversial Gateway Mall of new office buildings appears to be moving forward.

The city's pitch to draw new business and also more conventions and tourists is more coordinated than in years past. Mayor Schoemehl says he is forming a new group of 100 owners of middle-size companies to help with city promotion efforts. And a new mayoral development council now oversees and tries to pull together some of the more varied private development efforts. ''Agencies had set their own agendas and were sort of off doing their own thing,'' explains the mayor.

Currently St. Louis, which recently joined with the county to try to draw more conventions and tourists to the area, is outspent in that goal only by New York City and Las Vegas, according to the mayor. Hotel occupancy in St. Louis is up an impressive 127 percent over last year. And Schoemehl says if he ever came upon an extra $50 million for the city, he would invest it in tourism (''it's an industry of increasing importance to the city - by design'') and in capital improvements from street to sidewalk repairs.

But of all the accomplishments that would make him feel most satisfied at the end of his term, he rates a merger of the city with St. Louis County at the top of the list. Commuters into the city pay local wage and sales taxes. And the city and county have teamed up on a variety of efforts from sewer and transit service to museum operations and an area-wide junior college.

But Schoemehl says that much more must be done toward achieving a common agenda if the region wants to grow.

''At some point there's going to have to be an outright merger,'' he says. ''It's absurd to have 91 separate boards of aldermen in St. Louis County and a city and (separate) county within the city. But we will never sell the idea to the county as long as everytime residents pick up the paper they read about more layoffs in the city and fiscal crises. We've got to get beyond crisis government. The city has to be seen as strong and progressive and the leader of the region. The concept can never be sold if it looks as if it's designed to be a bailout for St. Louis.''

Currently St. Louis accounts for only 20 percent of the area population. Increasingly it is a population that is elderly, poor, and lacking in job skills. It is a situation facing many of the nation's older manufacturing cities. Mayor Schoemehl suggests a radical change in tax policy is a partial solution.

''Without question the federal government is the most efficient, effective collector of the most fair, progressive form of taxation in the history of this country,'' he says, thumping a finger on his desk for emphasis. ''We have a moral obligation to care for the poor and elderly. The responsibility runs to the general population. If I could institute one change in federal law I would put in place some sort of aggressive federal revenue-sharing program and prohibit cities from the regressive taxing of food, housing, and utilities beyond a certain limit. Revenue sharing is a very fair way of dealing with the problems of the urban poor.''

Yet despite that strong bid for change, Schoemehl remains markedly optimistic about his own city's immediate financial future.

''I'm confident that we're on the right track and will have a balanced budget this year,'' he says. ''I really see this as a turnaround year of transition for the city of St. Louis after years of fiscal instability.''

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