More than 150 people were on hand Friday for a forum in O’Fallon to discuss the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s preliminary decision to build its $1.75 billion western headquarters in St. Louis rather than St. Clair County.
County leaders and congressmen representing the region organized the forum for local residents to raise questions and concerns regarding the preliminary site decision on the location of the intelligence and map-making agency’s new campus.
On March 31, the agency announced that it had preliminarily chosen the 99-acre St. Louis site instead of a 182-acre tract in St. Clair County next to Scott Air Force Base.
The forum in O’Fallon was organized by U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro; Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville; St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern; Madison County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan, and other community leaders.
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Bost told the gathering that NGA Director Robert Cardillo has ignored concerns about safety and security at the proposed North St. Louis site brought up by him and other metro-east leaders.
“They did not listen to us, and that’s why we are here today,” Bost said.
Kern noted that the process for choosing a new NGA site to replace the current one near downtown St. Louis began four years ago, and since then St. Clair County worked to meet the criteria — safety, security, room to grow, proximity to a major military client — that should have brought the new western NGA campus to the St. Clair County site next to Scott Air Force Base.
“They couldn’t be any more clear they wanted this site located next to Scott,” Kern said. “But as we saw during the process, some things changed.”
Kern accused federal officials of changing the criteria to favor the North St. Louis site.
“We thought we really had a great shot. But the playing field was not level,” Kern said. “There was a thumb on the scale the whole time.”
By the time of the second public hearing on the NGA site last fall, the attitude of the Army Corps and NGA officials had changed.
“When they gave us our presentation, they weren’t too happy with some of the questions our elected officials gave them,” Kern said. “It gave us pause in what was going to happen.”
They did not listen to us, and that’s why we are here today.
U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro
This fear was borne out by the Army Corps’ Final Environmental Impact Statement, or FEIS, which was filled with factual errors and omissions and that played up the North St. Louis site’s advantages and played down its drawbacks, while doing the reverse with the St. Clair County site, according to Kern.
“That report speaks for itself,” he said. “It was a done deal before the report was generated. The report was generated to back up the decision, frankly, an ill thought-out decision to place this agency in North St. Louis. ... It was a complete failure to analyze all the sites fairly.”
Kern took special aim at the FEIS’ contention that the St. Louis site was better positioned to attract computer savvy young people qualified to work for the intelligence agency. Kern ridiculed a NGA survey of 46 college students employed at the agency that asked for their preferences among the proposed sites. Twenty said they wanted to work in St. Louis and 12 said they wanted to work in St. Clair Couty, Kern said.
“Based upon that, that was the scientific study the Corps of Engineers used to say that we didn’t have the quality personnel here to work at their agency,” Kern said.
“We need an investigation of how this process went on,” Kern said. “I know the request has been made. We all have to get behind these gentlemen in their request for that. We all have to get behind our senators, who asked for a ... GAO (Government Accountability) study to look at the cost factors here.”
A handful of forum participants, including several current NGA employees and contractors, spoke about the problems surrounding the North St. Louis site and the advantages connected to the St. Clair County site. Constructing NGA West in North St. Louis will add many millions of dollars to the project’s final tab, they said.
Some of the most emotional testimony during the forum centered on North St. Louis’ national reputation for high rates of murder and other violent crimes, a fact that could endanger the safety of NGA employees. Other participants noted the high costs of cleaning up environmental challenges related to the North St. Louis site, including the nearly ruins of the vast Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, a 33-acre site that has sat undisturbed since its demolition in 1973.
Gary Hursey of O’Fallon, who works as a telecommunications contractor, criticized the North St. Louis site as a much more expensive alternative for taxpayers because of its lack of infrastructure to support fiber-optic communications.
“There is almost no fiber,” Hursey said. “St. Louis has not done the build-out for technology. They’re not ready.”
Roy Foeller, a recently retired 40-year NGA employee, noted that NGA’s future home needed plenty of room for growth because “NGA is growing exponentially, every time you turn around.”
Foeller underscored how NGA’s primary mission is to support warfighters around the world.
“It’s not about me,” Foeller said. “It’s about the people out in the field.”
But the decision to locate NGA West in North St. Louis is “not what this is about. It’s about the politics.”
We need an investigation of how this process went on. I know the request has been made. We all have to get behind these gentlemen in their request for that. We all have to get behind our senators, who asked for a ... GAO (Government Accountability) study to look at the cost factors here.
St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern
On Monday, Bost authored a letter to the Department of Defense urging a formal investigation by the department’s inspector general into what he describes as the faulty U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report used to justify moving the NGA West campus to North St. Louis.
Bost’s request follows a similar appeal he made earlier this month to the Corps of Engineers’ inspector general, whose investigation has yet to be completed.
The Illinois lawmakers’ argument, which they pressed in a meeting with NGA Director Robert Cardillo earlier this month, centers on their belief that the Corps of Engineers report, which guided Cardillo’s decision-making was deeply flawed.
The Illinois leaders say the document, known as a contained a number of factual errors in the comparison between the two sites and underplayed the security advantages of the St. Clair County site — including proximity to a military installation and a 1,000-foot setback distance from any roads that would protect the site from terrorist attacks.
Cardillo is scheduled to announce his final decision as to NGA’s location on June 2.
The NGA, a secretive Defense Department intelligence agency that makes maps based on satellite imagery, announced two years ago it needs a new home for its western headquarters. It is currently housed at the 190-year-old St. Louis Arsenal just south of downtown St. Louis. The NGA must move because it needs more room to grow and modern infrastructure, such as heating-and-cooling systems.
Construction on the NGA site is set to begin in mid-2017 with completion set for 2021.