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We Can Change Perception of Downtown Highlighted by WSJ

by Steve Smith

Once again, we find St. Louis in the national news.

But unlike a growing number of recent positive articles, this was not for a good reason. While the emphasis of the recent story in The Wall Street Journal was the impact of several large empty buildings downtown, the message behind the story is one of a perceived lack of vibrancy in our region. Our reputation is again being challenged.

Based on the immediate reaction to the article, there is clearly a consensus that downtown matters. As stated in the STL 2030 Jobs Plan, there is no path to long term growth for our region without a vibrant central core. I am an architect and developer who has worked in downtown St. Louis for over 30 years. My partners and I have resisted recent pressure from our own employees to “move west” because we want to be part of the solution to some of the challenges of our region, in this case a vibrant downtown.

To that point, name an American city that is dynamic and growing but does not have a vibrant downtown. Austin, Nashville, and Charlotte are growing robustly and are magnets for young people, but not because they have great suburbs — which, like us, I’m sure that they do. Their reputations have risen because they have vibrant city centers surrounded by supportive neighborhoods and suburban communities. As Bill Hudnut, the legendary mayor of Indianapolis, said a generation ago, “You can’t be a suburb of nowhere.”

The renaissances and fast-growing populations in the Midwest often started with those communities finding the civic resolve to reimagine their downtowns as the collective turf of the metro in which all had a stake.

St. Louis’ recent history is full of examples of this type of civic commitment. A generation ago, Cortex was created on the vision and determination of Bill Danforth and John Dubinsky. David Steward has brought the NASCAR Cup Series and global attention to WWT Raceway in Madison, Illinois. The Taylor family has changed the entire trajectory of Downtown West with their investment in St. Louis City SC and the area surrounding CityPark Stadium. Penny Pennington of Edward Jones has taken on the challenge to create the Brickline Greenway, one of the most ambitious civic projects in a generation. These leaders, and many others, have stepped up.

The Wall Street Journal article highlights how the world may currently perceive St. Louis and reminds us that the entire metro suffers when we avoid tackling the heart of the issue. At the end of the day, that the article was unfair and inflammatory doesn’t matter. That perception is out there and will live in Google searches about St. Louis for a long time.

Until we change it.

We have proven time and again that when this region has a civic resolve, and when individuals step up, we get ambitious and exciting things done. I look forward to seeing a next generation of leaders rise up and make a difference in our wonderful city of St. Louis.

This article appeared in the St. Louis Business Journal on April 17, 2024 in response to an article published in the Wall Street Journal.

Steve was a guest on KMOX’s Total Information A.M. show speaking about this article. Listen to the 10-minute interview here.