What would it mean for St. Clair County if 3,100 highly stable jobs that pay an average annual salary of $75,000 were to materialize here one day?
And suppose those 3,100 jobs grew to 4,000 jobs? Then 5,000, and then still more jobs after that?
Those are the sorts of questions dancing through the minds of county elected leaders and economic development officials as they contemplate the county’s odds of landing the new headquarters for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
NGA plans to move out of its cramped and aging facility just south of downtown St. Louis and move into a new home, taking with it 3,100 workers, which the agency plans to house in an 800,000-square-foot building to be built at a cost of $1.6 billion. The NGA workforce could jump up to nearly 4,000 employees when the workers at its Arnold, Mo., facility are moved out when the lease on the building they are working in comes up.
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Officially, four sites are still in the running for what is being called NGA West: two are located in St. Louis County, while the third is in North St. Louis. The fourth candidate site is a 192-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.
NGA is scheduled to make the final decision in March, with the building scheduled for completion by 2021.
Politically, however, the race has come down to the North St. Louis site versus the St. Clair County site. The two St. Louis County sites — one in Fenton, Mo. and one in Mehlville, Mo. — have been rejected by Steve Stenger, the St. Louis County executive, who has thrown his support behind the North St. Louis site.
St. Clair County officials are feeling good about the county’s chances of luring NGA West.
In comparing the two contending two sites, they are coming to see that the St. Clair County location has huge advantages over the North St. Louis location, due to a list of factors that include the security that comes from being located adjacent to a major military installation such as Scott Air Force Base, enthusiastic local support, and the fact that — in contrast to North St. Louis — the St. Clair County site has virtually unlimited room for future growth.
What’s more, the North St. Louis site won’t come cheap. St. Louis officials have estimated it will cost that city and the state of Missouri $130 million to bring NGA to the North St. Louis site. This includes the cost of buying up the land from property owners who wish to sell, as well the cost of forcing out those who don’t wish to do so.
In contrast, St. Clair County has offered to turn over its site to NGA for no cost at all. Making the deal even sweeter, this land would be free of litigation and is already under government control.
John Lengerman, the Greater Belleville Chamber of Commerce executive director, has to tried to keep his confidence in check during the run-up to Oct. 9, when the Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the site selection process, is scheduled to release the environmental impact statements on each site. The statements are expected to offer the strongest clues as to the identity of the eventual winner.
“It looks too good on paper some times,” Lengerman said of the St. Clair County site. “I try to take a step back and not be too optimistic.”
County Board member Craig Hubbard, R-O’Fallon, agrees with Lengerman that the St. Clair County site has many big advantages over the North St. Louis site, but he is not ready to pop the Champagne corks just yet.
“It makes so much sense, you’re afraid something’s going to happen,” Hubbard said. “There is that fear out there, that politics will come into play.”
St. Louis has strong incentives to hang on to NGA. It already collects $2.4 million in annual earnings taxes from NGA workers. The estimated economic impact of NGA West moving to North St. Louis would be an additional $1.4 billion annually, according to a statement issued in July by U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis.
Still, the advantages of the St. Clair County site, including the county offer of free land to the federal government, are so starkly obvious that Hubbard said he’d be “dumbfounded” if it wasn’t picked by NGA when the agency makes its decision in March.
“You’d just scratch your head and say, ‘Holy moly,’” Hubbard said.
Ted Shekell, O’Fallon’s economic development director, agreed that NGA’s presence in St. Clair County would have a big, immediate economic impact. One of the most important features would be the impact on the region’s economy in the long term.
“It’s a huge impact not just for the jobs, but also for the long-term stability of your economy,” said Shekell, noting the concentration of so much brainpower in one area could result in “a mini version of Silicon Valley as it relates to the federal government.”
Lengerman, the Belleville Chamber of Commerce leader, said he hoped NGA’s presence would not drive up housing prices, “but I would hope it would maybe stabilize them, maybe get back to where we were before.”
If NGA does come to St. Clair County, economic growth might take a while to gather momentum, according to Nancy-jo Manney, executive director of the Greater Springfield (Va.) Chamber of Commerce.
In 2010, NGA moved its national headquarters out of Washington, D.C. to a site outside of Springfield and on the grounds of Fort Belvoir, Va. NGA built a 2.7 million-square-foot building to house 8,500 employees, which soon bumped up to 11,000 workers.
One of the things that brought NGA to Fort Belvoir was the availability of plentiful land at the site, according to Manney.
“Because of NGA’s security requirements, they like where they are because it’s big, open and they have no immediate next-door neighbors,” Manney said.
Springfield economic officials anticipated a boom in housing prices, but that didn’t happen, as most NGA workers, who were already commuting to Washington, D.C. from Maryland and Virginia had apparently decided to hang on to their current homes, Manney said.
“We really haven’t seen a major boom,” she said. “There’s been a little bit of retail that has come along. But a lot of that retail was already planned...I cannot say that any kind of economic boom is directly tied to NGA.”
The biggest impact so far of NGA’s presence in Fairfax County was the fact that it led to the release of federal funds to complete the final two-mile section on the Fairfax County Parkway, Manney said.
“And simply because it got the Fairfax County Parkway completed, that’s why it was a big thing,” she said.
Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at email@example.com or 618-239-2533.