The fate of the most important job project in St. Clair County history rests in the hands of one man: Robert Cardillo.
Cardillo is director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, a highly classified intelligence agency that makes maps based on satellite imagery.
Cardillo is set to decide in two months whether the new home for NGA West, and its 3,100 jobs, will go either to a site next-door to Scott Air Force, near Mascoutah, or one in North St. Louis, a few miles northwest of its current location on the site of the old St. Louis Arsenal in downtown St. Louis.
While Cardillo ponders the pros and cons of both sites, both of Illinois’ U.S. senators have been privately working to convince Cardillo in face-to-face meetings to move NGA West to the nearly 400 acres of St. Clair County-owned land just west of Scott.
U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., met Dec. 18 with Cardillo at the latter’s office at the NGA headquarters complex at Fort Belvoir, Va.
The focus of Kirk’s pitch, he said, was on how proximity to a major military installation could provide enhanced security for NGA, which plans to build a $1.6 billion headquarters on the winning site location by 2021.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., met in June with Cardillo at Durbin’s office. Durbin’s main selling point during that meeting, he said, was the ample room for future expansion the Scott site could provide for the rapidly growing intelligence agency.
For his meeting last month with Cardillo, Kirk arrived bearing a gift, he said.
“‘Robert, a Christmas present from Mark to Robert,’” Kirk recalled saying, before placing in Cardillo’s hands a severed piece of fiber-optic cable about a foot long with a bow of Christmas ribbon attached.
The cable is identical to the 27.5-mile length of fiber-optic cable that runs from the NGA complex near the Busch Brewery south of downtown St. Louis, under the Poplar Street Bridge, and then to the control center at the U.S. Transportation Command, headquarted at Scott.
“The point I hit very hard on is that should the NGA be across the river, they would be dependent on a data pipe that crossed the river,” Kirk said. “It was the center of my argument. I said the key to a successful agency is military capability and making sure that when the troops log on they don’t have a ‘service denial’ page up.”
Worries over the consequences to essential military intelligence if that fiber-optic line were cut — either through a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, or terrorist activity — are a major concern for NGA planners.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Hoffman Estates, who is running for Kirk’s Senate seat in the November general election, has set up a meeting with Cardillo for Tuesday, according to her spokesman.
Another part of Kirk’s pitch centered on his long friendship with Cardillo and years of service together in the intelligence community. Kirk is a retired intelligence officer in the United States Navy Reserve.
“I made the case personally, friend to friend, military officer to military officer,” Kirk said.
For his part, Durbin said during his meeting with Cardillo the focus of his pitch was on the Scott site’s room for future growth.
“We talked about all the aspects of it,” Durbin said. Much of the discussion focused on security as well as having “a place with more opportunity for expansion, which I think we tried to drive home as well with St. Clair County’s most recent offer.”
In mid-November, St. Clair County upped its ante by offering an additional 200 acres to NGA free of charge. This was in addition to the 182 acres with a market value of $5.5 million the county had already offered to donate to NGA.
Durbin noted that Scott is already a client partner of NGA.
“I tried not to dwell on the security aspect of this publicly, but we’ve talked about it privately,” Durbin said.
The fact that St. Clair County has offered nearly 400 acres of land, free of charge, to NGA, is an incredibly powerful inducement, according to Kirk, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs.
“I made the pitch very hard that this acreage is a $10 million gift from the county to NGA,” Kirk said. “And as the senior appropriator for military construction, that was the right price for me.”
In stark contrast, city of St. Louis is estimating it will cost $130 million to bring NGA to the north side.
Durbin further noted that during the last round of the Base Re-alignment And Closure Commission, or BRAC, a panel of top Pentagon military and civilian leaders in 2005 had strongly recommended that NGA move from its cramped and relatively insecure St. Louis venue to Scott, a recommendation that was delayed because the BRAC panel had run out of money to implement the plan.
The fact that the BRAC panel had recommended movement of NGA to Scott, even without the inducement of free land from St. Clair County, amounts to a “pretty compelling argument, incidentally,” Durbin said. “Because it means previous administrations even without the attractive aspects of the current offer really believe this is the right move for NGA.”
Both Kirk and Durbin agreed that politics will not play a significant role in the decision on where to locate NGA West.
“I’ve spoken to the White House on several different occasions,” Durbin said. “All I’ve asked is let this be decided on the merits. I feel that we have an overwhelming bid when you consider all the aspects of it.”
Durbin acknowledged that he lives in a “political world, and the decision will ultimately be made by people who live in the political world as well.”
With friends on both sides of the issue, “I hope they will step back and allow a professional decision to be made,” he said. “That really is a hands-down advantage for St. Clair County.”
Durbin’s Senate colleagues from Missouri — Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo. — have centered their argument for the North St. Louis site on how NGA West would help fuel the economic revitalization of North St. Louis.
“Apparetly it is tough to argue the merits because we have such a strong bid and they’re making the bid to the president to help them rebuild part of St. Louis with this project,” Durbin said.
Officially, there are four sites in the running for a new NGA headquarters, 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.
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. In December, the city of St. Louis reached a deal with developer Paul McKee over his property within the 99-acre site the city is proposing for the new NGA West campus.
The St. Louis Board of Aldermen already had OK’d eminent domain proceedings against McKee and 18 other property owners who refused to sell to the city. Otis Williams, the St. Louis Development Corp. chief, announced the city had acquired an option to buy more than 300 parcels held by McKee that lie within the proposed NGA foot-print.
The NGA, working in concert with America’s most top-secret satellite imagery, provides intelligence for a host of classified intelligence and military purposes, from battlefield maps updated in real time for America’s armed forces, to images of Iran’s uranium enrichment sites.