Metro-East News

NGA autopsy: What’s wrong with the St. Clair County site? What’s good about north St. Louis?

By Tobias Wall, Joseph Bustos and Brian Brueggemann

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, left, and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, right, discuss the benefits of a St. Louis site for the new western headquarters of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, left, and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, right, discuss the benefits of a St. Louis site for the new western headquarters of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. BND file photo

No, it’s not an April Fool’s joke or a bad dream: Federal agencies prefer a St. Louis site over St. Clair County’s site for the home of a massive new headquarters for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

NGA Director Robert Cardillo announced Thursday that the site in north St. Louis is his agency’s preferred location. The NGA’s preference is based partly, he said, on a study of the available sites, conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers.

So, what’s in the 491-page study?

One glaring factor is that the federal government took into account the economic effect that the $1.6 billion project and its 3,100-person workforce would have on a decaying area of north St. Louis.

The Corps’ report found that the north St. Louis site “is consistent with the City of St. Louis’ redevelopment plans for the area and may provide a stabilizing effect, indirectly leading development attraction and eventual momentum toward enhancing the NorthSide community resources.”

Proponents of the Illinois site have argued that urban renewal shouldn’t be part of the mission of the NGA, an agency that provides mapping data to the U.S. military. Illinois proponents have argued that the St. Clair County site — right next to Scott Air Force Base — makes the most sense.

The Corps’ report notes 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 inner-city locations. Promise Zones “receive priority access to federal investments that further their strategic plans.”

Cardillo, in an email sent Thursday to the agency’s St. Louis employees, said the St. Louis site offers the best opportunity to attract the best employees.

“The future of our agency and our profession rests on our present talent and that of the next generations we can recruit onto our team. We face tough competition, and offering an environment that appeals to these future generations is critical to our success,” Cardillo wrote. “Studies point to a desire by today’s millennials to be in urban environments, and this trend is expected to continue.”

St. Clair County officials are taking the weekend to review the report’s findings.

“Obviously we are disappointed,” St. Clair County’s NGA-to-Scott Twitter page said. “Our team is reviewing the Final EIS. We will organize our response during this current comment period.”

Notable findings from the report:

▪  “Siting the Next NGA West Campus at the St. Louis City site could result in major benefits from the change in visual character at the site,” the report says. “Additional non-major benefits would include health and safety improvements, construction spending, induced employment, cleanup of existing hazardous contamination, improvements in services that result in a more sustainable community, and the reduction of weed species.”

▪  Keeping the headquarters St. Louis would allow St. Louis to keep the earnings tax it currently receives from NGA employees — about $2.4 million annually.

▪  The report notes how the federal government already is invested in trying to rebuild the decaying north St. Louis area. For example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has awarded a $500,000 Choice Neighborhood Planning Grant to develop a strategic Near NorthSide Transformation Plan, the goal of which is “to create a comprehensive, stakeholder- and resident-based plan to transform the Near NorthSide area, which includes the Preservation Square housing development and the former Pruitt-Igoe property.”

▪  In discussing the north St. Louis site, the report states: “Current efforts have led to a new vision for the area. The City of St. Louis is a recent recipient of several federal programs targeting community development in distressed areas. In 2014, St. Louis was designated under the Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) Initiative sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). SC2 is a partnership between the White House and 14 federal agencies to help cities facing long-term challenges build capacity and more effectively use federal funds and investments. In St. Louis, the SC2 team works with City leadership and community organizations to implement the City’s Sustainability Plan, which includes the NorthSide Regeneration Project (White House Council on Strong Cities, Strong Communities, 2014).”

▪  The report notes that NGA workers already have a connection to Scott Air Force Base, but adds that two universities in St. Louis also have ties to NGA:

“Two governmental partners, U.S. Transcom and Air Mobility Command, are located at Scott AFB. NGA currently maintains a 35-member support team co-located at U.S. Transcom. The Midwest Center of Cyber Excellence is being established in St. Clair County and could prove to be a valuable partner in the future,” the report states.

But the report adds, “The potential connection to the computer science graduates from the University of Illinois was also recognized. However, at present, Washington University and Saint Louis University are the only local research universities partnered with NGA.”

▪  The St. Louis site has an advantage because millennials prefer living in urban settings, according to the report.

“From a recruitment standpoint, many studies indicate that newer college graduates prefer urban environments. The large size of the millennial generation, and its preference for urban living, has been a driver for population growth in cities in recent years,” the report states.

The Corps received survey responses from 48 students who are in the NGA hiring pipeline.

“When asked about the specific sites and ranking them one through four, 42 percent ranked the St. Louis City site as their top choice, while 25 percent ranked St. Clair County Site as their top choice,” the report says. “Conversely, 25 percent of the respondents ranked St. Louis City site as their least desirable site, and 50 percent ranked St. Clair County site as their least desirable site.”

▪  The St. Louis site, according to the report, has “the opportunity to cultivate and foster relationships with academia, industry and governmental partners, and technological incubators emerging near the St. Louis City site outweighed the opportunities at the St. Clair County site. Additionally, the St. Louis City site better addresses the recruitment and retention of the future NGA workforce.”

▪  The report predicts substantial economic development at the north St. Louis site as a result of the NGA locating there.

“The proposed action has the potential to function as a business anchor in the center of the redevelopment area,” the report says. “This investment may indirectly attract reinvestments into adjacent neighborhoods consistent with the redevelopment plan, including mixed uses and public services, such as clinics.”

▪  Wetlands would be affected, according to the study. The St. Clair County site contains a 2.1-acre wetland, a small pond and 2,092 feet of a stream. Wetlands affected by construction would need to be relocated. The report also identified the possibility that endangered species could inhabit the space, including barn owls and a couple types of bats. But the study noted there are no caves at the site, meaning endangered bats would not seek shelter or hibernate there.

▪  Construction at the St. Clair County site would require clearing approximately 157 of the site’s 182 acres. According to report tree clearing could not take place between March 31 and Oct. 1 to avoid impacts on federally listed bat species and migratory birds.

The NGA also would have to replant or replace trees along the banks of a stream on the site, the report said. Replantings would include plants that are suitable roosting sites for bat species.

Some of the land in the proposed St. Clair County site is used as farmland as it is leased to two farmers by MidAmerica Airport, according to the report.

The Farmland Protection Policy Act is “intended to minimize unnecessary and irreversible impacts by the federal government to farmland, which for FPPA purpose include prime farmland, unique farmland, and land of statewide or local importance,” the report says.

However, under the St. Clair County Comprehensive plan, the land proposed for the NGA site is designated for conversion from farmland to a commercial park, the report says.

▪  Construction at the St. Clair County site would cause “major, negative and long-term impacts to a known archaeological site” and “minor to moderate, negative and long-term impacts to unidentified archaeological resources.” According to the report, one of those sites, known as the Hancock Site, is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places and could contain “lithic scatter,” bits of stone tools or earthenware used by Native Americans.

▪  The report gives credit to the St. Clair County site’s location next to Scott.

“Location of the next NGA West Campus at the St. Clair County site would not be a consolidation of existing military operations, so benefits to operational readiness are minimal. However, as previous assessments have shown, an improved security posture due to adjacency with a military base and the current open landscape would be achieved at the St. Clair County site and is a strong benefit of that location,” the report says.

But it adds that while St. Clair County’s site “presents a stronger security posture than an urban environment, it is anticipated that a strong security presence, security management system, onsite parking and careful site planning and building design features can be implemented at the St. Louis City site location. Close coordination with the local authorities will be planned to develop security strategies with the City of St. Louis law enforcement and to gain concurrent jurisdiction.”

▪  If everyone who currently works at NGA’s south St. Louis site also works at a new one built in St. Clair County, the study concluded the average commute by those employees would more than double. The current round trip commute was calculated to be 26.4 miles. The new average round trip would be 58.2 miles.

About 70 percent of employees at the current St. Louis location reside in Missouri, the report says. As of 2015, the NGA’s St. Louis headquarters had 273 employees who resided in the city of St. Louis and 2,654 who resided outside the city.

▪  Traffic at Illinois 158 and Wherry Road would be significantly affected. Building at the St. Clair County site would require the construction of an exclusive right-turn lane from the highway to Wherry Road. The intersection also would need to be outfitted with traffic lights.

▪  The study compared the number of structures on each site that would need to be removed if the new facility is built. The St. Louis site contains 61 single-family homes, 52 vacant structures, 13 two-family residences, a trio of four-family residences, five businesses, a Head Start center and two Baptist churches. There are no structures on the St. Clair County site.

▪  The report notes that negotiations are continuing for purchase of some of the properties in the St. Louis site, but adds that there will be “a relocation assistant to establish the needs and services required by each affected person.”

The report says residents there will be offered “assistance in obtaining affordable housing in the area in which a resident wishes to reside, connection with social service support, and assistance in relocation payments. A choice between relocation payments or property acquisition reimbursement is allowed as part of the negotiation process for the acquisition of the land.”

▪  Input was gathered from current employees at NGA headquarters at St. Louis. Their concerns included commute times, traffic, the 1 percent earnings tax in St. Louis, proximity to amenities and “safety at the St. Louis site.”

▪  There would be “major, negative, and long-term impacts on historic properties” at the St. Louis site, including the former Buster Brown shoe factory, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

▪  The St. Clair County site and a site in Mehlville were “determined to have the greatest adverse impacts with fewest environmental advantages. Both of these sites were of concern to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because of long-term impacts to habitat corridors supporting federally listed Threatened and Endangered Species.”

▪  The critical factors used by the NGA to decide on its preferred location included “its ability to perform its mission, maintain a secure environment, retain and recruit employees, and meet the construction schedule.”

▪  Native American tribes were consulted. One, the Osage Nation, raised concerns about proposed sites in Missouri.

“The tribe identified the St. Louis City site as the most sensitive site for tribal resources and requested that it be avoided,” the report states. “The tribe communicated that it believes the St. Louis City site has the highest likelihood to encounter ancestral Osage sites because it is near the Osage Mississippi River Trail, a tribal cultural resource, and the Mississippi River itself. The tribe also noted the presence of the St. Louis Trail in the vicinity of both the Mehlville and the Fenton sites.”

Final decision later

Cardillo will the make the final, official decision on the location of the NGA West campus by either late May or early June. Through the end of May, members of the public will be invited to submit their views on the recommendations to NGA staff. Several Illinois and St. Clair County officials said Thursday they’ll be reviewing the preliminary decision and appealing their case.

But Cardillo, in a prepared statement issued Thursday, spoke glowingly of the St. Louis site.

“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. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Mike Bost of Murphysboro and U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis of Taylorville, both Republicans, issued a joint statement Friday:

“We’re going to continue to work hard and see through this process of relocating the agency to the site adjacent to Scott Air Force Base. During the upcoming comment period on this decision — and beyond — we will continue working with the Department of Defense and stakeholders at home to protect the future of Scott, its dedicated employees, and its enormous impact on the regional economy.”

This story will be updated. For more, return to bnd.com or read the News-Democrat on Saturday.

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