Metro-East News

No NGA for you: St. Louis site gets nod for agency headquarters; St. Clair County passed over

Artist’s conceptualization of the NGA West headquarters at a site in St. Louis.
Artist’s conceptualization of the NGA West headquarters at a site in St. Louis.

St. Clair County and Illinois leaders pledged Thursday to do all they could to reverse a preliminary decision by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to build its $1.6 billion western headquarters in North St. Louis — and not move to St. Clair County.

The new western headquarters, called NGA West, apparently will go to a 99-acre site in North St. Louis a few miles northwest of its present location at the old St. Louis Arsenal south of downtown.

Robert Cardillo, the NGA director, announced the bad news to county leaders and Illinois lawmakers in a series of phone calls late Thursday afternoon.

St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern said he received the call about 4 p.m. from Cardillo.

Kern said he was told by Cardillo that one concern was the St. Clair County site would make it difficult to attract and retain high-tech employees, as well as concerns about building on open space.

“We will go through the report line by line, and take a look at the reasoning and will make comments on the ones we don’t agree with,” Kern said.

Kern reiterated there is a comment period of 30-60 days until the final decision is made.

“We encourage everyone who supports this to make comments to the NGA, and after they read the report, to give their opinions as to the recruitment of high-tech employees,” Kern said.

According to Kern, there also are concerns that it would cost more to build in Illinois than Missouri. “We want to drill down on that decision, too,” he said.

The St. Clair County site did score highest on security, Kern said.

Kern said he received compliments on St. Clair County’s proposal, which included efforts from the Illinois Congressional delegation, state officials and local officials.

“We believe we have the best site, we continue to believe that, and will continue to work towards that goal,” Kern said.

We believe we have the best site, we continue to believe that, and will continue to work towards that goal.

Mark Kern, St. Clair County Board chairman

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who had lobbied hard for the St. Clair County site, took Cardillo’s decision in stride.

“In light of the preliminary decision by the NGA, I will take full advantage of the comment period to point out that Illinois is best equipped to protect men and women in uniform,” Kirk said in a statement released Thursday afternoon.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, tweeted that the news was disappointing, but said the future of Scott Air Force Base remains bright.

“I will continue working with leaders at home and in Washington to ensure that Scott remains a major player in our nation’s defense,” Durbin said.

Cathy Kelly, a spokeswoman for Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, said he will continue pushing for the St. Clair county site.

“We believe St. Clair County’s proposed site offers the best choice for the agency’s security and future expansion, with easy access to the city of St. Louis by both road and rail,” Kelly said. “We intend to respond to the agency during the comment period, for we firmly believe that Illinois is the place the agency can best grow and thrive.”

Meanwhile, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, at a news conference, noted that the St. Louis site is adjacent to the former Pruitt-Igoe federal housing complex. Slay said locating NGA headquarters there would go toward “righting the wrongs” committed by the federal government in that failed housing project.

Slay called the decision an important step forward for St. Louis. He said when the formal record is announced, the city will finalize property acquisition, provide relocation assistance to homeowners in the chosen location, and begin site demolition and environmental cleanup.

“Building this headquarters, where we have proposed it, will change the game in the heart of the city, reverse decades of disinvestment in a neighborhood,” Slay said.

Building this headquarters, where we have proposed it, will change the game in the heart of the city, reverse decades of disinvestment in a neighborhood.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay

The decision announced Thursday is not final. Between now and the end of May, members of the public will be allowed to submit comments on Cardillo’s choice. Cardillo is set to make the final decision on where NGA West goes by late May or early June.

But Cardillo, in a prepared statement, sounded as if there isn’t much room for reconsidering.

“The St. Louis site provides NGA with the most technological, academic, and professional environment for this agency to develop the capabilities necessary to solve the hardest intelligence and national security problems entrusted to us by the American people,” Cardillo said.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said in a statement she was thrilled with the decision.

“This is great news for the skilled and dedicated workforce at NGA, and for the entire St. Louis region — where it’ll be a boon to a community that’s already making enormous economic strides with a number of urban revitalization programs,” McCaskill said. “I’m glad NGA leadership and the administration listened to our sustained, bipartisan arguments for the benefits of the unparalleled infrastructure, experience, and the talented workforce Missouri provides to continue the NGA’s critical mission of protecting our national security.”

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri, also applauded the decision.

“Director Robert Cardillo and the NGA made the right decision in selecting North St. Louis as the preferred site for the new NGA West campus,” Blunt said in a statement. “The North St. Louis location will allow the NGA to continue its mission, and recruit the next generation of intelligence professionals seeking the type of urban, car-optional lifestyle the city provides.”

State Rep. Charlie Meier, R-Okawville expressed some deep disappointment.

“I am shocked and very disappointed to hear the federal government thinks relocating the NGA in St. Louis is the best option,” Meier said. “Keeping the intelligence agency in the most violent city in the country according to the FBI does not make sense for a facility that needs a safe and secure location. The location the NGA is considering is far from safe.”

He added he hopes the NGA reconsiders and the St. Clair County location is the most logical place to locate.

“If the federal government really wants to help St. Louis, I wish the government would help the region by putting out the fire burning underground in Bridgeton and help increase police protection in the city,” Meier said.

Former U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, said he thought the Scott Air Force Base location was the best.

But Enyart also pointed out that U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay is a powerful Democrat representing St. Louis, while U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, who defeated Enyart in the 2014 election, is a freshman Republican representing the interests of St. Clair County.

Enyart declined to speculate, however, on whether the decision might have been different if he had been re-elected.

“Like everyone else in St. Clair County, I’m really disappointed the NGA did not select the Scott Air Force Base location,” Enyart said.

Enyart said the selection of the north St Louis location will end up costing taxpayers more than if the Scott location was selected.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon called the decision “a great day for St. Louis and a shining example of what is possible when Missourians work together across regional and party lines for the good of their communities.”

Backers of a St. Louis location had argued that the north St. Louis site is in a federal Promise 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.

If it came to St. Clair County, the NGA project would have been one of the biggest projects in metro-east history. Construction of the 800,000-square-foot building will create 1,500 temporary construction jobs in addition to 3,100 permanent jobs.

The formal recommendations regarding the new home for NGA’s western headquarters will come from two places: the Environmental Protection Agency and NGA itself. Both agencies will send their recommendations to Cardillo. 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 western headquarters by either late May or early June. Between Friday and the end of May, members of the public will be invited to submit their views on the recommendations to NGA staff.

The formal recommendations will be posted on the websites of the NGA and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Construction on NGA West is set to begin in early 2017, with the project completed by 2021.

Plans developed in 2005 for move to Scott

Highly detailed plans to move the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency from its current home to a $1.6 billion facility at Scott Air Force Base have been on the drawing board for more than a decade.

As far back as 2005, top Pentagon leaders had considered just one option for moving NGA from its cramped and aging facility at the old St. Louis Arsenal at 3200 S. 2nd St., in St. Louis — the move to Scott, because that was the only option that made sense in terms of cost savings, security, improved efficiency and enhanced mission performance, according to a copy of the minutes, which were obtained by the News-Democrat.

State and county officials were long convinced the St. Clair County site had big, even overwhelming advantages over the proposed North St. Louis site when it comes to serving the needs of NGA. The 99-acre North St. Louis suffered from some major drawbacks, not least of which was the fact that nearly half of the parcels were still controlled by businessman Paul McKee, while many other parcels would have to acquired through eminent domain to enable the city to gain control of them.

St. Clair County officials were quick to note that while the cost to U.S. taxpayers to acquire the 382-acre county size will be zero, the cost of acquiring the North St. Louis site will add up to at least $130 million — that is, if all the necessary parcels can be acquired by the city by the 2017 deadline.

What’s more, the U.S. Transportation Command, based at Scott, is already a major NGA customer, and moving NGA to the St. Clair County site would provide major cost savings and a big boost in security — arguments county leaders are making today, echoing the exact same arguments the BRAC infrastructure panel made in 2005 in pushing for NGA’s relocation to Scott.

In early March, St. Louis and Missouri officials announced they would offer the 99-acre proposed site in North St. Louis free of charge to the spy agency if it builds its new western headquarters there.

In addition, the state of Missouri plans to offer $131 million in financial assistance to bring the project to North St. Louis.

Missouri’s contribution includes $95 million in tax increment financing, plus about $36 million in brownfield tax credits.

That announcement came in response to St. Clair County’s offer several days earlier of free land for the 182-acre proposed site in St. Clair County, just west of and adjacent to Scott Air Force Base, for the new NGA West complex.

St. Louis has spent more than $7 million, mostly to buy land, to keep the NGA’s 3,100 jobs and the $2.4 million in earnings tax revenue they generate for the city each year. The city has valued the land at about $14 million and at one point proposed selling it to the federal government. Now it is offering it to the feds free of charge.

During a recent press conference at MidAmerica St. Louis Airport, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner announced the state would provide $116 million in road and other infrastructure upgrades if the NGA chooses the Illinois site.

The loss of NGA would have been the second major blow to the economy and national image of St. Louis in less than four months. In January, the owner of the NFL Rams announced he was moving the football team after a 21-year tenure back to Los Angeles.

Reporter Beth Hundsdorfer contributed to this article.

Mike Fitzgerald: 618-239-2533, @MikeFitz3000