An Interview with Francis Slay, Mayor of St. Louis Questions from the St. Louis Business Journal.
What are your budget expectations for 2013?
They are good. If the national economy continues to expand, we are projecting 2% growth in our revenues. If our pension changes go into effect, 2% growth will be enough to offset other expected cost increases.
We hope to give our employees a small pay raise in fiscal year 2013, and hire additional police officers.
What are some signs that the economy is improving in St. Louis?
Since the recession hit, more than $2-billion in projects have been built or are being built in the City of St. Louis. The Convention and Visitors Commission booked more conventions in 2012 than in many years. Flights and the number of passengers at Lambert are growing. The city’s unemployment rate is down. We expect even more progress in 2013 as long as the national economy cooperates.
What can be done to improve safety in the city?
Reducing crime in all neighborhoods and increasing quality educational choices for all children are our top two challenges and priorities.
We have come a long way. According to the FBI statistics, crime has gone down in the city in each of the last five years, and, according to police department statistics, it went down in 2012 as well.
But, we have a ways to go. Because of concentrated poverty and the associated social costs, we have more than our fair share of thugs and criminals. We are working to prevent crime by strengthening families, neighborhoods, and ensuring that more people have an opportunity to succeed. That includes supporting the improvement of SLPS, expanding quality charter schools, expanding career mentoring, preparing more high school students for college, providing more productive after school and summer activities for children and teenagers, strengthening quality job training and placement, creating minority workforce goals, and making more residences lead-safe.
On the enforcement side, we have to be tough and relentless. We have to use the almost quarter of a billion dollars budgeted every year for law enforcement better and smarter.
The new police chief, Sam Dotson, comes in with high expectations. He strongly believes the police department can prevent and reduce crime, and make all neighborhoods safer. His challenge will be changing the department’s culture so it less reactive, and instead uses data, the best technology available, and the experience and knowledge of his officers to prevent crime, or to make quick arrests.
The best recent example of that was the department’s Homicide Deterrence Initiative. Last summer, our former Chief Dan Isom put more officers in high crime neighborhoods at the time of day when crime was occurring. The results were staggering: a 20% reduction in property crime and a 50% reduction in violent crime in the targeted areas.
Our city has way too many guns, and it’s too easy for the bad guys to get them. Until Congress and our State pass common sense gun laws, I am working with our police and prosecutors to enforce existing laws better, and with our circuit judges to create a gun court so the criminals know there will be a consequence if they commit a crime with a gun.
Years of hard work and perseverance have paid off with control of the police department returning to St. Louis next summer. My expectation is that the department will be more responsive to the will of the people when it is under the control of the people. The people have made very clear what they want: a safer city.
What economic segments of the city are improving? Which need help?
Our economy is recovering. The unemployment rate is down. Small businesses are moving to the city. Larger employers are committing to staying here for the long haul. The city has made important progress in attracting new industries, like the life sciences, that will employ our children; building new schools and improving old schools that will prepare them for citizenship and careers; including more people in prosperity; and removing enough barriers to be called one of the country’s best places to start a small business.
We can help ourselves by increasing the number of college graduates, encouraging immigrant communities, making more workforces and training programs racially inclusive, having the right (and fairest) tax policies, and investing in small businesses. I am happy with the progress we’ve made. Small businesses and big ones are investing and expanding in the city. That is progress I mean to continue by removing barriers that businesses face, by becoming a national model of urban education to create a well-prepared workforce, and by continuing to encouraging things – large and small - that contribute the vitality of urban living. St Louis is already raising eyebrows with its progress; my hope is that in 2013, we begin turning heads.
With the opening of the Central Library and the redevelopment of several buildings, what’s the next step for downtown St. Louis?
Two of them: embracing the future and the City/Arch/River project.
Downtown is already one of the best live/work/play neighborhoods in the region. The growth of young, college graduates in our downtown is almost the highest in the country.
We have to make decisions for the future. That means more walking, cycling, and transit-- and fewer cars and trucks. It means green buildings and better connections to green spaces. It means embracing smart ideas no matter whose they are. It means making everyone feel safe Downtown at all times.
As for projects, my number one downtown construction priority is City/Arch/River. The Arch is the symbol of St. Louis. It is part of who we are. It is also one of the great structures of the world. But, it is disconnected from the rest of Downtown and from the Mississippi River. The grounds and museum are tired and uninspiring. The riverfront road that borders it spends weeks each year under water.
City/Arch/River will be as important to our quality of life and our future as the improvements to Forest Park and the Downtown Now! plan.
What is the one concern for the city that keeps you up at night?
Since I took office, we have fought our way through two stock market crashes and the worst recession since the Great Depression. By being smart and making tough decisions, we got through it with vital city services intact, our credit rating the highest it has been in decades, and the city as a better place.
But, could we do it again?
What are some positives heading into 2013 that many people don’t know about?
In no order: food trucks; CORTEX; LGBT gains; humane animal policies; a growing population of college grads looking for an urban lifestyle; an airport that looks better than ever, and the fact that St. Louis is a national leader in reducing homelessness, lead poisoning in children, and in protecting seniors during dangerous weather.
Where does St. Louis need to improve?
We need even more college graduates and more immigrants. We have to figure out how to keep more of our smart young people from moving away, especially African Americans. We have to include more minorities in our workforce.
We have to find a way to reduce the airport’s debt service payments. They are a major drag on air service, the airport customer experience, and development of the airport for cargo. What issues are key to your reelection campaign?
I will assert that the mayor matters and leadership matters.
People need to remember how bad things were for most of the decade before I took office. Despite a strong economy, St. Louis lost ground. City Hall was plagued by corruption, insider deals, and mismanagement.
We have turned that around. We are moving forward. We have attracted $6-billion in new investment. The FBI reports crime is down significantly. We have our highest credit rating in a very long time. We are rebuilding public education one charter school at a time. The days of a scandal a week are over. People have confidence again.
We have more work to do. But, we should also recognize how far we have come.
How can the city continue to lower its unemployment rate?
Through entrepreneurs and small businesses. They are growing here, and St. Louis finally has a good reputation as a place where small businesses innovate.
We are working regionally and within the city to support new initiatives that provide support, funding, low-cost infrastructure, and networking connections for small, emerging businesses.
That includes Arch Grants, BioSTL and BioGenerator, Capital Innovators and T-REx.
As our city grows, every segment should have opportunities to be part of that growth. That’s why I issued Executive Order 46. It sets minority, women, and city resident workforce goals on large TIF projects.
A number of our city residents want to work. They are willing to show up on time, and they are reliable. But, they may lack knowledge needed for skilled jobs. Often, that is math. We must provide them with - and they need to take advantage of - the remedial education for the knowledge needed for skilled jobs.
What infrastructure improvements are planned in 2013?
Parks improvements, particularly if voters approve a sales tax. A streetcar line. New bike trails and lanes. Some aging bridges will be replaced. Tucker will be finished.
The Missouri General Assembly is going to debate issuing bonds to make improvements. It could be as much as $2-billion. The St. Louis region is the state’s economic engine. It is logical that a sizable portion of that money would be invested to keep that engine humming. Just 30% would be $600-million. That would be a difference maker.
Should the city offer incentives or funding to upgrade the Dome to ultimately keep the Rams in St. Louis?
I would not want to play chess against either Kitty Ratcliffe or Bob O’Loughlin. The Convention and Visitors Commission has done a terrific job on behalf of the citizens of our region in enforcing the provisions of the CVC lease with the Rams. At every turn, they have made the right moves.
Three arbitrators will hear evidence and decide what improvements are needed to make the Dome top tier per the CVC lease with the Rams. If those improvements cost too much, the answer is an easy no.
If the cost is reasonable, then the question is how to pay for the improvements. I have made it clear that other than taxes or fees on the game-day experience, any new revenue sources will have to go to a vote of the people.
I believe an NFL team is a net plus for a region. So, keeping the Rams in St. Louis is important-- but not at any cost.
In your mind, what areas of St. Louis serve as examples of urban revitalization? How can other communities follow their lead?
It is a long list. Cherokee Street. The Grove. Old North St. Louis. South Grand. Grand Center.
Arlington Grove is a beautiful public/private partnership that has transformed a neighborhood. The school was rehabilitated using Historic Tax Credits and Community Development Block Grant funds. The project also includes new garden apartments, town homes, and retail space.
Urban revitalization would be very difficult and in some cases impossible without the Historic Tax Credit and the Low Income Tax Credit. They are vital tools unavailable in communities in other states. How can the city and county work together more efficiently to spur economic progress?
By combining the two economic development agencies – ours and the county’s - into one with a focused attention on creating jobs efficiently. What’s the latest regarding a city/county sharing of services or possible merger?
The City and the County already share services through our partnerships in MSD, the Great Rivers Greenway District, Metro, the Convention and Visitors Commission, VICC, and others. We are focused on expanding into economic development. We have begun discussing shared public health services. Public safety, which already has some strong cooperative agreements in place, is the next logical partnership.
I strongly support the City re-entering St. Louis County as a municipality. It would allow better use of tax dollars. But, it would also signal to the rest of the world-- and we are competing in a global economy-- that St. Louis is modernizing its government structure to be more nimble and business friendly.