St. Joe Revives Boom Town Spirit

After a century of apathy, once-thriving Missouri metropolis is moving ahead with initiative. LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

FOR the city of St. Joseph, the ice age may finally be over. Initiative, vision, and public-spiritedness are replacing the apathy, self-doubt, and narrow-mindedness that have weighed like a glacier on St. Joe for almost a century, driving away business and stifling growth.

Consider: A Korean company is close to making the largest investment ever in St. Joe, a $125 million paper-recycling plant. A fifth record year is expected in real estate sales. Construction permits are at an all-time high.

The chamber of commerce is funding an effort to attract or create 4,000 jobs in four years. One company wanted to open a laboratory that would bring 150 jobs to St. Joe, but objected to plans to build a highway nearby. In just one week the city arranged for the highway to be relocated.

Private citizens got together and bought land for the riverfront park the city has always wanted. Other citizen groups are taking an interest in St. Joe's turn-of-the-century architectural heritage, which is breathtaking despite time, neglect, and the federal Urban Renewal program. The old Missouri Theater, which cost $1 million to build in 1926, is being restored as a civic arts center.

St. Joe is led by its first woman mayor and a new city manager recruited from out of state. The newly elected council is the first in years ``that isn't made fun of,'' says the Rev. Charles Bayer, who until winning one of those seats last fall, used his regular newspaper column to ridicule nine-hour council meetings that produced no action.

City Hall has a plan - finally - to asphalt St. Joe's 54 miles of unpaved streets within five years. City officials are taking the budget process to the public for front-end input.

Most significantly, for the first time in memory St. Joe is not only looking at the future but trying to create it through the new St. Joseph-2000 Commission. Modeled after a planning process that proved highly effective in San Antonio, Texas, citizen task forces will create action plans for developing the economy, arts, tourism, education, and other aspects of city life.

``[Do we know] where it's going to go? No,'' says Glenda Kelly, the mayor. But ``it's going to be a huge success.''

St. Joe should be one already, by any logic. Founded in 1826 by fur trader Joseph Robidoux, the town thrived as the last stop for wagon trains of west-bound settlers and forty-niners heading for the California gold fields. Hardware and dry-goods merchants, a brewery, banks, and meat-packing plants prospered.

By 1860, St. Joe had a population of 8,900, more than Kansas City, Omaha, and Council Bluffs combined. The city zoomed to 103,000 at the turn of the century. Along the way the pony express was launched here. Jesse James, who owned a house in St. Joe was gunned down here.

The new century, however, brought stagnation. Younger towns like Omaha and Kansas City blossomed into Missouri River metropolises five to 10 times the size of St. Joe, which observed this anxiously but seemed unwilling or unable to halt the process. From 1910 to today, the population level has remained unchanged at the 70,000-plus level.

``Sometimes I think they're the same people,'' says Mr. Bayer, who is also pastor of First Christian Church.

``I've never lived in a place whose self-image was as frightful as this,'' he adds. The mentality was one of ``nothing is ever going to happen, so leave us alone.''

``For a town of 3,000 that would be sad but understandable,'' Bayer says. ``For a town of 70,000, that's a death wish.''

SOME people blame the so-called ``Seven Ruling Families'' for causing St. Joe's attitude.

These families, according to local lore, controlled the town's most prosperous industries and conspired to keep other industries away so they'd have a cheap labor pool to themselves.

That story is fantasy, says Sheridan Logan, a resident who wrote a history of St. Joe. ``People were just looking for an excuse for not keeping up'' with Kansas City.

A member of one of the Seven Ruling Families who asked not to be named also disputes the idea that they deliberately kept St. Joe down. ``I've heard that comment made all my life. I find it hard to believe.'' He notes that, when a national firm wanted to buy one of the family businesses, his grandfather stipulated that it had to remain in St. Joe. On another occasion his grandfather offered to give city land to an out-of-town industry that was looking for a site.

Still, St. Joe acquired a reputation over the years for chasing business away. In 1948 Alcoa wanted to build a rolling mill in the city and had already optioned the land. When St. Joe acted as though supplying the plant with electricity would be difficult, the mill went to a location outside Davenport, Iowa, which gave Alcoa an electrical substation.

Today that plant is the world's largest aluminum sheet and plate rolling mill, producing 2 million pounds a day. It employs 3,000, has a $113 million payroll, makes $172 million in local purchases, and pays $6 million in state and local taxes.

``Conspiracy is too strong a term,'' says Bayer. But ``I do think there was an agreement to keep folks out and keep wage rates low.''

``None of this old money represents any power anymore,'' he adds. Nearly all of the Seven Ruling Families lost their fortunes over the years. But the psychology that nothing can ever happen in St. Joe retains momentum.

Stephen Price found this out when he changed houses here. One of his new neighbors learned that he works for the Chamber of Commerce. ``Then you must know why St. Joe never grew,'' she told him. ``It was because of the Seven Ruling Families.''

Says Mr. Price: ``All the people she named were dead.''

St. Joe drifted into the 1960s on the backs of its biggest employers, the Swift and Armour meat-packing plants. Then came ``the kind of economic catastrophe that could destroy a town,'' says Mr. Price, the chamber's director of economic development. Simultaneously, the two plants announced that they'd be phasing out operations - and thousands of jobs - within four years.

``That's when the Chamber of Commerce became active in economic development,'' says executive director Alan Kenyon. More difficulties were ahead. The largest ``industry'' established in town during the 1980s was the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which set up shop to liquidate all the agricultural banks that were failing.

If there's a bright side to the former stagnation, it's that St. Joe is still cheap and unspoiled. Parking in a downtown garage is 20 cents an hour. Houses fetched $30,000. The Alcoa plant that St. Joe didn't get was Iowa's worst emitter of one kind of atmospheric pollutant.

Today when recruiting companies, the chamber touts quality of life as often as the availability of cheap labor, Mr. Kenyon says. Adds Bayer: ``New folks come in and say, `why hasn't this town moved, because we've got it all.'''

One in a series of occasional articles on life in the United States.

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