The battle for the new home of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency could be down to two sites: St. Clair County and North St. Louis.
Officially, there are four sites in the running for a new NGA headquarters and the 3,100 jobs it would bring, including a 192-acre tract adjacent to Scott Air Force Base; a 100-acre parcel in North St. Louis that used to be the site of the old Pruitt-Igoe housing project; the former Chrysler plant complex in Fenton, Mo., and a site in Mehlville, Mo., in South St. Louis County.
But, the Fenton site has already been sold to a commercial developer, while Steve Stenger, the St. Louis County executive, has thrown his support behind the North St. Louis site.
In a Sept. 4 letter to Robert Cardillo, the NGA director, Stenger touted the North St. Louis site’s access to major highways, arterial roads and public transit.
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Stenger promoted the area’s labor and construction force, which he said “is fully capable of delivering a quality facility in a timely manner, while the site’s central location in the city offers accessibility to a talented workforce supported by a significant number of educational institutions.”
Stenger’s letter, however, did not explain why he was not supporting the two locations in St. Louis County.
Stenger could not be reached for comment. His spokesman, Cordell Whitlock, attributed Stenger’s support for the North St. Louis site to the desire of St. Louis County officials to work with their counterparts in St. Louis.
“It’s about regional cooperation,” Whitlock said. “All I can tell you is, we’re standing by what’s in the letter.”
Intelligence experts interviewed for this story, however, dismissed the two St. Louis County sites as viable candidates for the new NGA headquarters because both are landlocked and would permit little room for future growth.
The Mehlville site, located off South Telegraph Road, is hemmed in by surrounding residential neighborhood. The Fenton site, while twice as big, suffers from the same problem. More importantly, a developer has already launched the first phase of a $500 million retail/light industrial project at that location off Interstate 44.
The public battle for project, dubbed “NGA West,” has been brewing for nearly a year. The next major event is scheduled to take place Oct. 9, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases environmental impact statements on the four proposed venues.
The statements will provide the clearest sign to date of where the NGA plans to build its $1.6 billion facility to replace the agency’s outmoded headquarters at 3200 S. Second St. near the Anheuser-Busch Brewery.
NGA is expected to announce the winner in March.
A huge prize
If it comes to St. Clair County, it will be one of the biggest projects in metro-east history. Construction of the 800,000 square-foot building will create 15,000 temporary construction jobs in addition to the 3,100 permanent jobs.
Experts predict NGA West could be the first of other intelligence and defense agencies drawn to St. Clair County, bringing potentially thousands more jobs to the region in the years ahead.
Some who follow the process have cited the North St. Louis site’s drawbacks, which include strong neighborhood opposition to the NGA coming into the area, and the fact that businessman Paul McKee controls much of the land within the proposed site. Buying out McKee and other property owners, and using eminent domain to remove those who don’t wish to sell, could be an expensive and time-consuming process that could add millions of dollars to the eventual price tag.
In addition, St. Louis voters recently rejected a bond issue that would have paid for infrastructure improvements at the North St. Louis site.
The built-in challenges of the North St. Louis site make St. Clair County even brighter, according to state Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon, who co-authored a resolution to bring NGA West to St. Clair County.
“There again, you have another obstacle for St. Louis that you don’t have for Illinois,” Kay said. “Missouri has a built-in obstacle there because they’re going to deal with unhappy citizens who will continue to be unhappy, notwithstanding what is offered to them, if anything is offered. ... I don’t see how there’s any competition between St. Louis and St. Clair County at this point.”
St. Clair County has offered to give, free of charge, 200 acres next to Scott for the NGA headquarters. “You have a location that’s ready and it can be secured very easily,” Kay said. “That’s an awfully good deal not to take up and run with. In this day and age, free is good.”
St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern could not be reached for comment.
St. Clair County Board members shared Kay’s optimism about the St. Clair County site’s benefits — proximity to Scott, lots of available land for future expansion, a skilled workforce and access to major highways and bridges.
County Board member Mike Baker, D-Mascoutah, said he feels really good about St. Clair County’s chances at this point.
“We have the land that’s not locked,” Baker said, “and we have the accessibility that’s fantastic with the new Rieder Road exit going in (off Interstate 64). I’m pretty confident we’ll get it.”
Kay noted that big defense projects have a tendency to grow, especially ones focused on national security and intelligence such as NGA, whose global mission continues to expand rapidly. The NGA provides maps to the federal intelligence and defense communities.
The 3,100 jobs that would come with NGA at first could rapidly grow to thousands more, Kay noted.
“This is going to be a big project,” Kay said. “And this is not going to be the end of the project. It’s just going to be the beginning of a defense effort to consolidate more defense activity wherever this goes.”
Not giving up
Supporters of the North St. Louis site remain undaunted.
Maggie Crane, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay’s spokeswoman, noted NGA’s “very long history” with St. Louis and how NGA’s relocation to North St. Louis could revitalize that area.
“We want to keep those jobs,” Crane said. “Jobs beget jobs. Business begets business. Those folks need a place to eat, a place to shop, a place to live. It could be an incredible boon for that area.”
Crane downplayed an international petition that’s been circulated online that’s aimed at keeping NGA out of North St. Louis. So far the online petition has collected more than 98,000 signatures from across the United States and overseas.
“I think we have a $1.6 billion project on the line with 3,100 jobs, that the people of St. Louis realize this to be a big boon for north St. Louis,” she said, further noting the North St. Louis site lies within a federal Promise Zone, and that the federal government has a mandate by President Obama to boost economically challenged inner city areas.
“So I think we have a lot on our side,” she said.
As for any issues involving McKee, the businessman who controls much of the site’s land, and other landowners, Crane said, “Those are all logistics that are being worked out” via the St. Louis Development Corporation, the city agency overseeing negotiations with NGA.
“We’re confident we’ll get it wrapped up,” she said.
Experts in the defense and intelligence industries have said, some privately, that the St. Clair County site is the only proposed site that makes sense for NGA West. Two reasons account for this consensus:
▪ First, the Defense Department is pushing hard to consolidate its assets. NGA belongs to the Defense Department, and it only makes sense to build its new home next door to a major Defense Department asset such Scott Air Force Base, whose biggest tenant, the U.S. Transportation Command, is already a major NGA customer.
“If it were up to me, I’d put them as close as I could get them to Scott,” said Tom Johnson, who, as associate vice-president of Webster University, oversees its growing cyber-security program. “You want to permit the organizations to work in cooperation and collaboration.To me, it’s a no-brainer to put them as close as I could get them to Scott.”
▪ Second, NGA’s need to be somewhere that has room for future expansion.
Wherever NGA West goes, it will need lots of land to expand because its mission centers on Big Data, which requires enormous amounts of computing power, according to Carl Wright, general manager of TrapX Security in San Mateo, Calif.
“Big Data also needs big buildings, big power,” Wright said. “We’re aggregating petabytes and petabytes, hundreds and hundreds of petabytes of data.”
Despite the fact that the old car assembly location has been sold, Fenton Mayor Mike Polizzi said he believes Fenton is still a viable candidate because the developers indicated they would set aside land for the NGA.
“We have a lot of great assets and things we can provide them in Fenton,” Polizzi said. “I think our location is great.”
But Polizzi conceded that Scott has a lot of big advantages. “From an outside viewpoint it does have a lot of positives,” he said.
Kay said he was “fairly confident” that the St. Clair County site will win out.
“It’s financially a better choice, it’s geographically a better choice, and the workforce far and away is a far better choice,” he said.
Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at email@example.com or 618-239-2533.