What is the NGA?
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is a fast-growing spy agency attached to the U.S. Defense Department that uses satellite imagery to make maps and other tools for America’s military and intelligence organizations, as well as for civilian federal agencies.
NGA, with a nearly $5 billion annual budget, has one of the biggest job descriptions in the federal government. It provides maps and other data to all facets of the military and intelligence communities, as well digital tools that help civilian agencies perform a wide range of tasks — from using social media to chart the movement of refugees from the Middle East to Europe, to locating new energy resources in the thawing Arctic regions.
Where does NGA have headquarters now?
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The NGA has two headquarters. Its main headquarters is located in a nearly 2.8 million-square-foot building located at Fort Belvoir, in Springfield, Va.
NGA’s current western headquarters, which houses 3,100 workers, is located on the grounds of the old St. Louis Arsenal, just south of downtown St. Louis.
Why does NGA want to move from its current St. Louis headquarters?
The NGA’s current home at the old St. Louis arsenal is nearly 190 years old. Two of the buildings it operates from date from the Civil War era. The U.S. Air Force has owned this property since the late 1940s.
The NGA needs a much bigger facility with room for state-of-the-art technology, to house its growing workforce, to provide better security and to accommodate future growth. It also badly needs modern infrastructure such as power lines and air-conditioning for high-speed computers to handle a mission that continues to expand and evolve in complexity.
Are Friday’s recommendations the final decision?
Friday’s recommendations regarding a new home for NGA’s west headquarters will come from two places: the Environmental Protection Agency and NGA itself. Both agencies will send their recommendations to Robert Cardillo, the NGA director. The EPA’s environmental-impact assessment is being conducted on behalf of the Army Corps of Engineers.
Cardillo is set to make the final decision on NGA by either late May or early June. Members of the public can submit their comments on Cardillo’s preliminary decision between Friday and April 16.
Which sites are in the running to replace the current St. Louis site?
Officially, four sites were in the running for what is being called NGA West: two are located in St. Louis County — Fenton, Mo., and Mehlville, Mo. — while the third is a blighted neighborhood in North St. Louis near the old Pruitt-Igoe housing complex. The fourth candidate site is a 182-acre patch of farmland and scattered trees owned by St. Clair County and located just west of Scott Air Force’s northwest boundary and south of Interstate 64.
Why have political leaders from Illinois and Missouri fought so hard to get the new NGA headquarters?
NGA West is the rarest of economic unicorns: a source of at least 3,100 good-paying jobs that is guaranteed to grow in the years ahead as NGA’s myriad missions continue to burgeon in scope and complexity.
Unlike the traditional sources of job growth that neighboring states fight over — a car factory, for instance — NGA does not present the risk of environmental harm or the possibility it could go out of business. The Pentagon has already said that NGA West’s new home will likely be operational for at least 80 years.
Finally, intelligence analysts agree that NGA West will serve as a magnet for private contractors, other government agencies and spin-off educational and business developments. For the cash-strapped city of St. Louis, which has long sought to lure investment to its many blighted neighborhoods, NGA West could be a huge game-changer. Mayor Francis Slay has said losing NGA “would be a devastating blow” to the economy of the city, which also just lost its NFL team.
What are the benefits and drawbacks of the proposed sites?
The proposed 182-acre St. Clair County site’s benefits are substantial: increased security because of its proximity to a major Air Fore base and virtually unlimited room to grow, an important consideration for an agency whose budget has more than doubled over the past decade. Another big plus: the fact that St. Clair County has offered the 182-acre site, plus another 200 acres if needed, to the federal government free of charge. The site’s drawbacks amount to a few minor things, including a longer commute time for the two-thirds of NGA workers who live in Missouri.
The benefits of the proposed 99-acre North St. Louis site include the chance for the city to hang on to $2.4 million in yearly payroll tax revenue and bringing major, new investments to a part of town badly in need of a helping hand. The drawbacks to the site are serious, including the fact it will cost $130 million in taxpayer dollars to develop it, while it could take months to acquire full control of more than 500 parcels of land, some through the eminent domain process. And of course if NGA is located in an urban area, there would be the serious threat to nearby people and property if NGA came under terrorist attack.
Are there any other factors at play?
Backers of a St. Louis location note that the north St. Louis site is in a federal Promize Zone. The Obama administration’s Promise Zone initiative aims to help low-income areas — primarily urban locations. Promise Zones “receive priority access to federal investments that further their strategic plans,” according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. St. Louis backers argue that building the NGA campus in north St. Louis would help the decaying area.
Illinois backers argue that the NGA’s mission and purpose are not to serve as an economic-development tool or urban-renewal program, but to provide information to warfighters and the intelligence community. It only makes sense to locate the headquarters next to a military base, according to Illinois leaders.
Illinois backers also note that data lines from NGA to Scott would be more secure if the two are located next to each other.
What about the NGA workers — do they prefer St. Louis or St. Clair County?
We don’t know. But we do know that current NGA employees in St. Louis will essentially get a 1 percent raise if the headquarters moves to St. Clair County. That’s because they would no longer have to pay St. Louis’ 1 percent earnings tax.
By the way, probably about a third of the current staff at the NGA headquarters reside in Illinois.
Can I get a job at NGA?
Maybe. The agency employs a wide array of professionals — everything from lawyers and psychologists to engineers and accountants.
But as the NGA’s current listing of job openings indicates, many of the workers have expertise in computing and geography-related fields, such as bathymetry, which is the study of underwater depth of lake or ocean floors.
The average annual salary for NGA employees is about $83,000.
Most of the jobs require a security clearance — you’ll have to take a polygraph test and undergo a background check. Many of the NGA job openings have preferences for individuals with backgrounds in the military or the Department of Defense.
Keep in mind that the 3,100 jobs at the NGA’s western headquarters are not new jobs. They’re mostly existing jobs that would move to a new location.
Of course, there will be spinoff jobs, not to mention the estimated 1,300 workers who will be needed to build the $1.6 billion campus.
When would construction on the new headquarters start, and when would it be finished?
Construction on the 800,000-square-foot NGA West campus is expected to start by March 2017, with construction set to conclude four years later and a grand-opening scheduled for early 2022.
Will road construction or traffic in my area be affected?
Hard to say at this point. Construction on the NGA project likely won’t start until nearly a year from now, and it will likely focus on the part of eastern St. Clair County near Illinois 158 and Wherry Road, where very few homes and businesses are located.
Will taxes go up because of this?
Another question that’s hard to answer at this point. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s unlikely that county property taxes will increase because of a major new federal construction project.
What other types of investments or projects might come along if NGA moves to St. Clair County?
Ah, if only we had a crystal ball. But if the experiences of other high-tech, rapily-growing federal agencies offer any guide, then it would be reasonable to expect the NGA campus would attract a variety of vendors, contractors and even other federal agencies that work closely with it, including the National Security Agency and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Would NGA locating next to Scott do anything to ensure Scott’s long-term existence, or expand Scott?
Metro-east leaders have been salivating about NGA West coming to Scott because they believe the NGA would further protect the sprawling air base from any future threat of closure at the hands of congressional budget-cutters. What’s more, it’s likely the NGA West would continue to hire more well-paid workers and even close its facility in Arnold, Mo., bringing that satellite operation’s 900 workers to St. Clair County, boosting the total NGA workforce to more than 4,000 workers.