Erik Siemers, Editor, St. Louis Business Journal
St. Louis is a city with abundant potential, but continues to face several obstacles when it comes to economic growth.
In an attempt to better understand a hierarchy of those problems, the St. Louis Business Journal turned to our subscribers to get a sense as to which issues they believe post the toughest challenges.
A survey conducted between Feb. 10-28 by a research team from American City Business Journals, parent company to the St. Louis Business Journal, helped surface which issues our readers say are the most pressing.
Over the next 12 months, the Business Journal will examine each of the top four issues from that survey, focusing on one per quarter, with new content appearing every two weeks. In addition, we will host a live, in-person panel discussion on each topic each quarter.
Below, we offer a look at the results of our survey and what readers had to say about each of the four primary topics, along with the planned publishing schedule for each along with dates for the events.
ATTRACTING AND RETAINING TALENT
The Covid era has brought with it soaring turnover, record quit rates, an abundance of job openings and companies still clinging to outdated hiring practices. This, however, describes the situation pretty much everywhere in the U.S. But in St. Louis, the challenge of attracting and retaining talent, at least in the view of Business Journal readers, goes a few layers deeper.
The Business Journal survey found that 43% of our readers identified “attracting and retaining talent” as one of the four biggest issues holding the region back. Of those readers, 88% said it’s more difficult to attract and keep talent in St. Louis than in other metro areas.
The issue was articulated perhaps most clearly in June 2020, when Michael Neidorff, then-CEO and chairman of Clayton-based Centene Corp., the region’s largest publicly traded company, told the Business Journal that his company’s struggles to bring top talent to the region was a contributing factor to its decision to invest $1 billion to develop an “East Coast headquarters” in Charlotte, North Carolina. Neidorff said St. Louis was too often in the headlines for crime or controversy, leaving an inauspicious first impression with potential recruits.
“If we’re trying to recruit somebody, and they’re staying at their hotel, hearing that the 13th child was killed, it makes it very hard,” Neidorff said at the time. “They may love the job and the company,” but then say their family doesn’t want to move here.
The response from readers was similar. Asked in an open-ended question as to why the region struggles to attract and keep talent, 35% said issues with crime and another 24% said St. Louis’ overall reputation.
UNIFIED LEADERSHIP / GOVERNMENT STRUCTURE
The St. Louis region, with its separate city and county governments, as well as dozens of municipal governments, economic development and local marketing operations, has left many with the impression that our biggest competition comes not from other cities, but from within.
Nearly 60% of Business Journal readers who responded to our survey identified the need for unified leadership or government structure as one of the four biggest issues holding the region back.
Certainly, this isn’t a new criticism, but solutions remain elusive. The 2019 Better Together campaign, which sought to unify the region under a single government structure, never came close to the ballot. That left other organizations to take on pieces of the issue one by one. The creation last year of Greater St. Louis Inc. through the merger of five local economic development and business advocacy groups, has been viewed widely as a strong first step toward creating a unified regional growth strategy. And on a more microlevel, St. Louis Realtors is in the midst of a campaign to unify the region’s building codes, saying the 17,000 pages of building codes across St. Louis County’s 89 local governments are “inconsistent, outdated and wastefully duplicative.”
But most readers still believe there’s only one certain solution to the issue: 90% said St. Louis would be better off with a unified government.
DECENTRALIZATION / HOLLOWED OUT DOWNTOWN
Downtown St. Louis is one of the region’s biggest tourist destinations, thanks largely to the Gateway Arch, the America’s Center Convention Complex and sports venues like Busch Stadium and Enterprise Center. But outside of major events, downtown St. Louis suffers from a long-term malaise, especially when compared with peer cities with more
emptied and the streets became more desolate. Reports of crime and gunplay picked up, prompting complaints from the business community that led Mayor Tishaura Jones to launch vibrant urban cores. The issue was made worse by the pandemic, when corporate offices a task force focused on downtown safety.
Now that businesses are edging closer to pre-pandemic norms, increasing numbers are either downsizing their office footprint downtown or leaving the neighborhood entirely, with some doing what many did before them: decamp for Clayton.
In large part because of these developments, 61% of Business Journal readers who responded to our survey said the region’s decentralization and the hollowed-out downtown was one of the four biggest issues holding the region back. The vast majority of those readers — 37% of whom said they were located within St. Louis’ central corridor, including downtown — believe having a strong downtown is critical to the region’s success. And exactly half believe the No. 1 priority to improving it centers on reducing crime and improving law enforcement.
THE REGION’S REPUTATION (INCLUDING CRIME/VIOLENCE)
If you’ve read this far, or lived in St. Louis long enough, the patterns here are pretty obvious. All of these topics — the struggle to attract talent to St. Louis, the myriad local governments, the dreary downtown — all contribute to what most of our readers believe is the region’s biggest obstacle to growth: the idea that St. Louis suffers from a bad reputation.
Not surprisingly, the one common refrain voiced by readers in each of the survey questions was that the region’s challenges with crime, whether real or perceived, is the biggest issue tarnishing that reputation. Asked whether crime is the reason why St. Louis is struggling, 92% said they agreed, with 62% strongly agreeing. And 85% said they believe people outside St. Louis think poorly of the region.
There has also been the school of thought that this negative perception of St. Louis is stronger within St. Louisans than it is with outsiders. But a majority of survey respondents— 56% — disagreed with that notion.