Thursday, May 20, 2010

St. Louis United: Thoughts on Reunification

The City of St. Louis, 1844
In February 2010, St. Louis City Mayor Francis Slay made the first of several recent public statements advocating the reunification of St. Louis City and St. Louis County.  His blog post on February 25th lamented that much of the metropolitan region's "energy is spent competing with each other--municipality against municipality, City versus County."  To heal those divisions, Mayor Slay called for the City to re-enter the County as an "important early step," and proposed in an interview that same day to put the issue to City and County voters within two years.

The secession of the City from the County became official in 1876.  (For a detailed look at the events leading up to and following secession, take a look at this recent paper written by Joe Huber, a junior at Christian Brothers College High School, first published by and subsequently picked up by several media outlets).  By the early 20th century, the City's decision to split from the County was already recognized as a mistake. As the population of the County grew (from approximately 27,000 residents at the time of secession), the City (with 310,000 residents) "found itself pushing against its western border at Skinker and began to regret its decision to divorce itself from the county." Several failed attempts to reunite the City and the County were made in the century following secession, most recently in the 1980s.

Today, the separation of the City and the County--not to mention the existence of 91 separate municipalities within the County--is often cited as a principal cause of regional stagnation. Wasteful duplication of services and intra-regional competition are two primary factors seen as resulting in a self-defeating metropolitan area that fails to realize its potential and loses opportunities to its geographic rivals. Proponents of re-joining the City and the County, including Mayor Slay, believe that reducing this infighting and inefficiency is a key step toward staying "competitive both nationally and globally."

The City of St. Louis (and Chicago), 1856

If, however, the City's original decision to split from the County was controversial, the notion of re-joining the two today is even more so.  This seems particularly true for those County residents who believe that the City--facing problems of poverty, crime, and education shared by many urban cores--would be a "drag" on the more prosperous County.  Others think that re-joining the City and the County is simply unachievable at this point, or even unnecessary.  In early 2006, John Temporiti, campaign manager for County Executive Charlie Dooley, ruled out the possibility of the unification of the City and the County in the short-term, and said it was unlikely even "in our lifetime."  UMSL political scientist Terry Jones in 2007 characterized the split as "irrelevant today," and even that it "makes us what we are." 

Although any government consolidation is likely to have both good and bad ramifications, preliminarily I agree with those who believe that reunification would be a net positive for the St. Louis metropolitan area, at least in the long-term (which, I believe, is the only way you can think about this kind of issue).  In addition, I think the region may be at a critical juncture that, despite multiple setbacks over the last century, could provide a unique opportunity to actually achieve that goal.

From the City's perspective, its most likely benefits from re-joining the County would be those envisioned by Mayor Slay:  a minimization of wasteful redundancies, a reduction in counter-productive competition with the County, and an enhanced ability to work cooperatively with the County to attract new businesses, revenues, jobs, and residents to the region.  In addition, certain statistics currently derived from the City alone (e.g., crime, population) would benefit from being measured with regard to the metropolitan region as a whole, resulting in a more favorable and accurate view of St. Louis and its standing relative to other metropolitan regions.  

St. Louis City, 1872
Of course, those same benefits would accrue to the County too.  In addition, the acquisition of the City as a municipality within its borders would give the County an opportunity to capitalize on a growing national trend toward urban infill and city living.  As the City's neighbor, the County already will indirectly benefit from the ongoing City rejuvenation that should help bring businesses, jobs and revenue to the region, but the County also has an opportunity to share in those benefits directly if the City is actually part of the County.  Either way, the County and the rest of the metropolitan area have a vested interest in seeing the City (particularly downtown) succeed.

In that regard, you don't have to be an urbanist to appreciate the hugely positive developments in downtown St. Louis over the last decade, including the rehabilitation of the Washington Avenue Historic District, a new Busch Stadium, and the highly lauded Citygarden park.  Successes continue today in most real estate sectors, from residential (an increasing downtown population of 12,500 residents), to retail (including Schnuck's new Culinaria grocery), to office (such as the renovation and increasing occupancy of One City Centre).  Of course, skeptics may point to stalled projects such as Ballpark Village, some of which are temporary victims of a major recession and real estate downturn.  On balance, though, I believe that there are many more encouraging than discouraging things going on downtown, and that the City stands poised to build on its recent successes and realize its impressive vision for the next decade

Major projects are underway despite a difficult economy, including multiple mixed-use redevelopments such as the Park Pacific, St. Louis Centre, and Laurel projects (with the long-overdue skybridge removal being just the latest "piece of the puzzle").  Other developments slated for the next half decade have the potential to be utterly transformative.  A new Mississippi River Bridge will be constructed on the north side of downtown, and the Gateway Archgrounds will be completely revitalized as part of one of the most compelling urban projects in the U.S. pipeline today.  These latter projects have even sparked an exciting "City to River" grassroots effort to replace the portion of Interstate 70 in front of the Archgrounds with a new at-grade Memorial Drive, ending the City's decades-long separation from the Arch and the Mississippi River.

It is clear that St. Louis has taken many successful steps toward reinvigorating its core, consistent with the Brookings Institution's proposed "twelve steps to revitalization" for downtown areas.  These efforts have been noticed not only locally, but have garnered significant national attention in recent years, with The New York Times in 2006 trumpeting St. Louis's "remarkable transformation."  Of course, downtown is only a small portion of the City, and its rejuvenation is only one of the City's many positive attributes. As noted by Mayor Slay, as a result of reunification the County also would acquire the City's numerous vibrant, historic neighborhoods; three major professional sports venues; numerous institutions of art, music, and culture; almost a hundred parks (including the incredible Forest Park and Missouri Botanical Gardens); and several universities and colleges.  And for one example of a great undertold story of urban rebirth, one need look no further than the ongoing renaissance of Old North St. Louis.

St. Louis, 1879
To me, then, the benefits to both the County and the City are apparent.  Ultimately, though, I believe that St. Louisans must get beyond thinking solely in terms of whether reunification would be good for the City or good for the County, to thinking about whether it would be good for the entire St. Louis region in the overall context of the national and global economy.  Proponents certainly must demonstrate that both the City and the County will come out better for having unified, but even more importantly should focus on reunification as a way to kick off "a new, forward thinking St. Louis region." 

Of course, nobody believes that reunification of the City and the County is a panacea for all of the region's troubles. At least to some extent, Terry Jones is certainly right that "[a] merger would not eliminate poverty, improve schools or medical care, change the environment or affect population density." Personally, I think that reunification may not even achieve significant results in the near term without also reforming the way in which local tax incentives--particularly tax increment financing--are used by intra-regional municipalities in an "inefficient, zero-sum competition for tax base with their neighbors" (a subject for a future post).

Nonetheless, I do think that reunification would be a net positive for all of St. Louis in the long term, and that it is a perfect time to seriously deliberate the issue.  Despite previous failed efforts and significant public skepticism, the confluence of the City's ongoing revitalization, the nationwide trend toward infill and walkable urbanism, and state and local budgetary crises (resulting in a search for efficiencies and waste reduction wherever they may be found), might be enough to get political leaders and citizens alike to consider reunification anew.  Recent focus on St. Louis's difficulties in "cultivating the sort of innovators, entrepreneurs and bright minds who will build the economy of the future" also may galvanize St. Louisans to find ways to work together to overcome regional decline.  Finally, increasing County support for traditionally urban issues (most notably, the overwhelming passage of Proposition A in April) may reflect a deeper trend of City-County cooperation and a more favorable environment for reunification efforts than in past years.

St. Louis City and portion of St. Louis County, 1903
So, what would it take to actually achieve reunification?  At a minimum, there would have to be strong political leadership and a major cooperative effort among state and local officials.  Although Mayor Slay is highly supportive of reunification, County Executive Charlie Dooley has been relatively quiet on the issue to date.  Perhaps this is partly in consideration of perceived opposition from County voters whose support he will need in his November re-election effort.  If so, the political climate may be better suited to tackle the issue after the election (whether Dooley, his Democratic primary challenger Ronald Levy, or his Republican opponent Bill Corrigan, wins).  At that time, a "summit" of City, County, regional, and state players could kick off reunification discussions in earnest, with any conceptual agreement to be followed up with task force analyses of the complex logistical and legal details.

In the meantime, supporters can begin laying the groundwork for the second key ingredient of reunification efforts, which is building major buy-in from the public.  As tweeted by Mayor Slay on May 16th, both advocates and opponents of reunification currently are "outnumbered by people who don't yet care."  This presents an opportunity for reunification advocates to get out in front of the issue and educate all St. Louisans on its mutual benefits.  Although this can and should be pushed at the grassroots level, I think that a huge public awareness campaign (call it "St. Louis United") also will be necessary to make reunification a reality, as opposed to something we jaw about for years to come (although the effort will certainly take years in any event).  Without that investment, most St. Louisans simply aren't going to be sufficiently aware of the issue, much less come to an understanding of why it would be beneficial.  (As always, though, many citizens are well-informed and interested--as an example, see the detailed and thoughtful comments of "stldoc" here). 

The City certainly has no reason to "beg" to be let into the County as part of that campaign (again, I think there are great benefits to the County as well), but I do think it will be critical for the City to engage in significant outreach efforts toward the County because my sense is that is where the most skepticism and opposition will lie.  (Of course, not all City advocates favor re-entry of the City into the County, and there will be a lot of persuading on that side too.)  To increase support in favor of the City's entry into the County, the City should increase efforts to advertise its recent successes and future plans, and convey the message that a thriving urban core will act as a rising tide that raises all ships.  Proponents should explore creative ways for getting the reunification message out to help educate the public and create a positive "buzz."

Imagine, for example, full-page ads (including in publications geared specifically toward County residents) stating: "136 Years Ago, the City of St. Louis Made a Mistake.  HELP US FIX IT." The header could be followed by a narrative explaining the benefits of reunification, as well as what it means for the City and the County to unify.  It will be important to make clear that the current proposal is merely for the City to re-enter the County as a 92nd municipality--not for the City and the County to merge, or for the City to cede all governmental authority to the County.  Reunification efforts will fail to gain sufficient public and political traction if they are viewed either by the County as a "bailout" of the City (something Mayor Slay has expressly denied), or by the City as giving up too much control to the County.  On the latter point, the City will continue to maintain its own municipal government just like the many other County municipalities (although Mayor Slay has expressed that, to be successful, any effort will require the County to be the "entity in control" post-reunification).

St. Louis City, St. Louis County, and surrounding counties today
Significant public support will be critical to reunification efforts for at least two reasons. First, re-entry of the City into the County will have to pass a voter referendum.  The Missouri Constitution expressly grants the people of St. Louis City and St. Louis County the power to consolidate or otherwise reorganize their governments, in accordance with a plan prepared by a nineteen-member bipartisan board of City and County electors (including one elector from another county).  The first step in this process is the filing of separate petitions signed by 3% of the registered voters who last voted in the gubernatorial general election in both the City and the County.

Second, I do not think that a critical mass of political leadership will materialize (particularly in the County) unless it is clear that there is substantial public support for reunification.  Related to this point, I presume that an amendment to the Missouri Constitution also will be necessary to effectuate the City's entry as a municipality into the County, given that the Constitution currently labels the City as a county (as well as a city) in its own right [see update on this point below].  If so, a constitutional amendment can be initiated (followed by popular vote) in one of two ways: (1) upon proposal by a majority of the members of both houses of the General Assembly, or (2) by an initiative signed by eight percent of the legal voters in each of two-thirds of Missouri's congressional districts.  To take advantage of the former method (which strikes me as the easier of the two), political support may need to be accumulated not only regionally, but in the state-wide legislature.  Again, this will require underlying public support to persuade legislators to expend political capital on obtaining the votes of their colleagues in the General Assembly.

However the politics play out, any successful reunification effort will require much discussion and compromise.  This is all highly theoretical at this point; innumerable specifics must be analyzed to determine whether Mayor Slay's proposal is in fact likely to make economic sense to all parties, and how to implement the logistical and legal details.  Further, even if reunification efforts were successful, the benefits would not be immediately evident.  Over time, however, I think re-joining the City to the County would help foster a sense of regional cooperation that is lacking now, to the greater good of all of St. Louis. 

Whether or not one supports actual reunification, I think all St. Louisans should be able to agree that we need to pull together and act more cooperatively for the benefit of the entire metropolitan area.  As a region, we rise and fall together, and our fates and fortunes are inextricably intertwined.  As Mayor Slay says, St. Louis "can no longer afford to be wasteful, inefficient, parochial, or redundant."  In the long run, it is to the detriment of all St. Louisans to act as "municipality against municipality, City versus County."  Rather, let's just act as ST. LOUIS--UNITED.
5/21/10 UPDATE: Upon further reflection, I am not sure that an amendment to the Missouri Constitution would in fact be necessary to effectuate the City's entry into the County.  As noted, the Constitution currently labels the City as both a city and county, originally leading me to believe that provision would need to be amended.  However, that same provision recognizes the City as a city and a county "unless otherwise changed in accordance with the provisions of this constitution."  As noted above, the Constitution provides a specific process for the people of the City and the County to consolidate or reorganize their governments, so perhaps that petition/referendum process is all it would take without a corresponding constitutional amendment.  I am far from an expert on state constitutional matters, so if anyone else has any insight on the legal process for reunification, please post your comments.


  1. Louisville KY went through a city-county join (don't know if it was reunification or a merger) and Kansas City KS-MO also has consolidated some agencies under the OneKC plan. Perhaps good sources to look at.

  2. Is there an update on any of the proceedings? Just curious how everything turned out. Thanks!