Metro-East News

Free land from St. Clair County won’t sway NGA site choice

A sign welcomes visitors through the Belleville Gate entrance at Scott Air Force Base.
A sign welcomes visitors through the Belleville Gate entrance at Scott Air Force Base. Chad R. Gann, USAF

Mark Kern, the St. Clair County Board chairman, made headlines a few weeks ago when he said the county was willing to donate nearly 200 acres of land free of charge as an incentive to lure the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to the county from its current home in downtown St. Louis.

The county’s generosity is understandable. If the agency decides to build its new 800,000-square-foot facility in St. Clair County, at a site adjacent to Scott Air Force Base, that would mean the addition of 3,000 good-paying jobs to the area.

But so far the response from NGA to Kern’s offer is a variation of thanks, but no thanks.

Right now NGA is not entertaining incentives, but standing by while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers performs studies of the four St. Louis-area sites under consideration, including the proposed Scott site.

The Corps will release its study of the four proposed sites by late summer “to give us a better idea of all the factors that we’re looking at,” said Julia Collins, an NGA spokeswoman.

Collins said it is hard to say if the offer of free land from St. Clair County would make a difference in the site-selection process, which is taking place over the next six months.

“There are so many things that we have to look at — some required by law” she said. “Some are things that actually impact our mission.”

An environmental assessment of the four proposed sites is due to be released either in late August or early September, she said.

“I think at that point we’ll probably have a better idea as to which factors we’ll end up prioritizing,” Collins said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whose Kansas City office is overseeing the site-selection process, also has taken a thanks-but-no-thanks attitude to Kern’s offer.

In an email to the News-Democrat, Corps spokesman David Kolarik called Kern’s proposal “a generous offer.”

But Kolarik also pointed out that “there are multiple other factors that affect the site-selection process. We will continue with the original route of collecting and analyzing the relevant data needed to make an informed recommendation to NGA, who is expected to make the final decision in March of 2016.”

Besides the site adjacent to Scott, the three sites under consideration to replace the aging St. Louis NGA facility near the Anheuser-Busch brewery are:

•  The site of the demolished Pruitt-Igoe housing project in North St. Louis

•  The old Met Life insurance building in South St. Louis County

•  The razed Chrysler car plant off Interstate 44, in Fenton, Mo.

For many years, the NGA specialized in making highly-detailed maps based on surveillance data that has served as a mainstay for U.S. military units and intelligence agencies.

The proposed site next-door to Scott is the only one owned free and clear by a public entity. The North St. Louis site, located in the neighborhood around the vacant Pruitt-Igoe neighborhood, would require taxpayers to buy out dozens of nearby homes and several businesses.

St. Louis’ Board of Aldermen earlier this year approved eminent domain for the north St. Louis site, a move that authorizes it to pay up to $10 million to buy up residents’ properties.

The other two proposed NGA sites — the former site of the Chrysler auto plant and the nearly vacant Met Life building in South St. Louis County — are owned by private entities who would demand millions of dollars for their properties as well.

The Army Corps Engineers plans to announce its preferred choice for NGA’s new home in late summer of this year. After a series of public hearings on the choice, the NGA is scheduled to announce the final choice in early 2016. Construction on the super-secure building is set to be finished by 2021.

U.S. Reps. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville; Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville; and Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, have sent a letter to NGA chief Robert Cardillo requesting that the new facility, to be called NGA West, be located at Scott because a site next to a military base “is the most logical, easiest to secure, with the best transportation options — including public mass transit, and with the best fit into a community among the choices available.”

The three congressmen noted that Illinois represents about one-fourth of the greater St. Louis metropolitan area and nearly 30 percent of current NGA West employees.

“The NGA is a critical part of the U.S. intelligence community, bringing together imagery and analysis to create the clearest possible window to the world for national security decision makers,” wrote Shimkus. “I have no doubt that the Scott AFB community would be thrilled to welcome the intelligence professionals at NGA West to a new home on our side of the Mississippi.”

In calling for NGA to move to Scott from its longtime home just south of downtown St. Louis, the three House members joined a similar call made in late December by U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who sent a joint letter to Cardillo in support of housing a new NGA facility at Scott.

“Scott Air Force Base is a cost-effective location for the facility, and situated in an incredibly strong and supportive local community in downstate Illinois,” the senators wrote.

A day earlier, state Reps. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon, and Charles Meier, R-Okawville, had introduced an Illinois House resolution encouraging the federal government to build the new NGA campus at the Scott site.