No one doubts that wherever the new National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency headquarters winds up — whether in a blighted part of North St. Louis or in a patch of cornfields in St. Clair County — the economic impact will be huge and long-lasting.
The job of building the new $1.6 billion NGA West will likely employ at least 15,000 construction workers, while the completed facility will employ at least 3,100 workers right from the start, with the likelihood of hundreds more employees working there soon after it opens in 2021. NGA, a federal agency that uses satellite imagery to create maps for U.S. military and intelligence customers, has announced it needs to move out of its current site near downtown St. Louis because of security concerns and the need for bigger and more modern facilities.
But would NGA’s potential to revive a neighborhood in need of a helping hand be enough to persuade Robert Cardillo, NGA’s director, to keep the secretive intelligence agency in St. Louis?
For Francis Slay, the mayor of St. Louis, and U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, the answer is a resounding yes.
Stung by the recent loss of the NFL football Rams, Slay last week told a Missouri Senate panel that losing NGA to Illinois would cause economic harm for his city. If any other site for NGA is picked, “they won’t lose anything,” Slay testified. But “we certainly will if we don’t get selected. We can meet all the needs that they have.”
Inspired by Slay’s pleadings, the Missouri Senate rules committee is considering a non-binding resolution requesting that NGA build its new campus in St. Louis.
Clay, meanwhile, is touting White House executive orders that encourage federal spending in low-income areas. Bringing NGA and its many jobs to the once-proud St. Louis Place neighborhood, located near the ruins of the abandoned Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, could spark an economic renaissance, according to Clay.
Clay described the hard-luck neighborhood as “a much different place,” during a recent bus tour that passed empty buildings and vacant lots, according to news accounts. “All of that over the last 50 years has been lost,” he said.
But according to intelligence experts interviewed, as well as U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., a former Navy intelligence officer, the economic argument for keeping NGA in St. Louis won’t gain much traction.
NGA is “not an urban renewal agency,” Kirk said. “They are an imagery agency for war-fighters.”
That’s why Kirk is telling other Illinois leaders to emphasize the St. Clair county site’s military advantages, such as its proximity to adjacent Scott Air Force Base — already a major NGA client — and the ample room that would provide a buffer zone from the nearest road.
In contrast, the proposed North St. Louis site provides none of those advantages, especially when it comes to security, according to Kirk.
“With NGA in Missouri, you don’t have adequate setback from a potential terrorist car bomb or something like that,” Kirk said. “The worst of all worlds would be a car bomb that interrupted the headquarters activity (of NGA) and knocked out that capability for the U.S. military. Which is why it can’t be in Missouri.”
The agency is choosing between the 99-acre North St. Louis site that Slay is lobbying for, and a 182-acre site in St. Clair County next to Scott Air Force Base.
Cardillo is scheduled to announce his initial decision before the end of March. He is expected to issue his final decision two months later.
Kirk said he doubted that political pressure from anyone, whether in Missouri or Illinois, will make a difference to Cardillo.
“Knowing Robert, it won’t have an impact at all,” Kirk said. Indeed, Cardillo and other NGA leaders “would actually resist politics because they are so concerned about the welfare of NGA.”
So why are Missouri politicians putting so much effort into pursuing a political strategy to move NGA to North St. Louis?
“I think local politicians want to show they are doing something,” Kirk said. “It’s mainly for their benefit. It has almost no impact on the case.”
Tim Pendergast, the head of Evident.io, a cyber-security firm, and a former intelligence professional, acknowledged that economic arguments play a role in where intelligence facilities are built.
“But the bottom line is, at the end of the day, it’s really going to come down to what’s best for NGA,” Pendergast said. “It’s going to weigh more heavily than with respect to revitalizing a particular area.”
No one could blame either Slay or Clay for trying to bring the NGA project to a corner of their city that, by any objective measure, needs a lot of help. The area is plagued by poverty, abandoned buildings and serious crimes — its stats are one reason that FBI numbers earlier this year showed that St. Louis suffers the nation’s worst violent crime rate.
Before his retirement in 2010, Vice Admiral Robert B. Murrett served four years as the fourth director of NGA, during the period when NGA consolidated its Washington, D.C. area facilities and moved into new NGA East headquarters at Fort Belvoir, in Springfiled, Va.
But the decision to move NGA East headquarters to Fort Belvoir was made by the members of the bipartisan Base Re-alignment and Closure Commission, or BRAC, which met in 2005.
“When those decisions were being put together and during the BRAC process that came before, there was a lot of engagement,” said Murrret, deputy director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University. “What I would describe as a lot of chefs in the kitchen during that process in the early 2000s.”