U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and metro-east elected leaders gathered Monday morning to make another public plea for bringing the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) to a county-owned site next door to Scott Air Force Base.
Hours later, the Highland City Council unanimously passed a resolution in support of NGA moving to St. Clair County.
“It will have a huge economic impact on the area,” said Highland City Manager Mark Latham. “It’s important to Highland, because it will likely result in a number of jobs, and new construction jobs be coming from here.”
And the St. Clair County site makes sense, Latham said.
“It’s a previous obvious place to do it with Scott Air Force being there,” he said.
To sweeten the offer of free land already on the table, St. Clair County upped its ante Monday by offering an additional 200 acres to NGA, a major spy agency that makes military and intelligence maps based on satellite imagery. Durbin and St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern are hoping this offer of more free land will seal the deal on the bi-state competition for the new NGA campus and its 3,100 well-paid workers.
Officially, three other sites are in contention for NGA West, but in recent months Missouri officials have focused their efforts on promoting a 100-acre site in North St. Louis, making the contest a horse race between that city and St. Clair County.
The county had already offered 182 acres with a market value of $5.5 million to the NGA, which plans to move out of its cramped and aging facility just south of downtown St. Louis. The agency plans to house the spy agency in an 800,000-square-foot building with an estimated price tag of $1.6 billion by 2021.
The 200 extra acres the county is offering comprise a rectangular-shaped parcel located directly north of the 182-acre tract just west of Scott Air Force the county has already offered free-of-charge to NGA.
Illinois officials touted the St. Clair County site, asserting that it surpasses the St. Louis site by every criterion related to what’s best for NGA and national security.
“I understand the other side,” Durbin said. “They want to fight for their side. But on the merits, we have the stronger location.”
And while the county controls every inch of the 382 acres it is offering free of charge to NGA, Durbin raised doubts about St. Louis’ ability to acquire control of the 100-acre site near the old Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, located at the corner of Cass and Jefferson avenues, by a deadline of 2017.
Madison County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan hammered on the idea that the St. Clair County site’s proximity to a military base and potential for future growth made it a far better choice than St. Louis
“If you take the politics out of this decision, this is what’s best for the government and best for the nation,” Dunstan said.
“The NGA has a major decision to make in the next few months, but the world elements we see today are not those that were present 40 years ago nor will they be present 40 years from now. In order to allow for the most expansive capability to situate a new NGA West, we in Illinois, as a team, clearly see a need to allow for future expansion of this important national asset,” Kern said in a press release. “To that end, for the next 10 years, and in accordance with the St. Clair County development plans, we will make available an additional 200 acres to expand the Scott AFB St. Clair County NGA West site for their mission needs.”
With additional land, Durbin said St. Clair County has enhanced an already “strong proposal. Scott Air Force Base provides several advantages for the NGA and is a natural fit,” he said. “Today, the Illinois Congressional Delegation reaffirms our bipartisan support for St. Clair County’s bid to be the new home of the NGA.”
State and county officials are convinced the St. Clair County site has big, even overwhelming advantages over the proposed North St. Louis site when it comes to serving the needs of NGA.
The 100-acre North St. Louis suffers from some major drawbacks, not least of which is the fact that most of the parcels are 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. Acquiring these parcels would cost at least $130 million, a cost that NGA would eventually have to bear.
In addition, many residents of the North city neighborhood oppose the NGA plan and have started an online petition calling for the spy agency to stay out. The petition has attracted more than 100,000 signatures worldwide.
But worries are arising on the Illinois side of the river that backroom political deal-making will prevail over logic and commonsense, and that in the end the federal government will use the power of tax dollars to revive the struggling St. Louis neighborhood that Missouri officials favor.
To help ease these worries, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, a week ago sent a letter to Robert Cardillo, NGA’s director and a friend of Kirk’s, urging Cardillo to consider “three unrivaled strengths” about the St. Clair County site as a new home for the top-secret spy agency, which specializes in generating defense and intelligence maps based on classified satellite imagery.
Moving the NGA campus from its current location near downtown St. Louis to Scott would “eliminate the vulnerabilities” associated with the 20-mile data connection that exists between Scott, the home of the Defense Information Systems Agency, or DISA, and the current NGA site, Kirk wrote in the Nov. 10 letter.
To underscore his arguments for St. Clair County, and against the proposed North St. Louis site, Kirk attached to his letter to Cardillo a memo that highlighted Kirk’s “concerns that could harm NGA if it located to St. Louis.”
These concerns include: The difficulty of securing 100 acres for the North St. Louis site because of eminent domain issues; the lack of local political consensus over the North St. Louis venue; the need to connect NGA to DISA via 20-mile fiber-optic line that crosses the Mississippi River; and St. Clair County’s willingness to donate the 182 acres worth $5.5 million to secure that site.
For his part, Kern on Monday declined to answer questions related to how county’s efforts to bring NGA to St. Clair County would affect St. Louis, which has argued loss of NGA and its 3,100 jobs would prove economically devastating.
“I think at some point they need to look at what’s best for the NGA,” Kern said during a meeting with reporters huddled around a enlarged map of the county site.
Kern pointed to a spot a few hundred yards southeast of the proposed NGA site, denoting the new home for the Defense Intelligence Systems Agency, or DISA, which is building a new national headquarters at Scott.
“DISA already supplies much of the information that NGA uses, the intelligence, comes from this building right here,” Kern said, pointing to the rectangle on the map.
In addition, the U.S. Transportation Command, headquartered at Scott, is already one of NGA’s top customers, he said.
“Placing NGA close to their customers and the people that supply them information is in the best interest of NGA,” Kern said. “In addition, placing them on a site that’s nearly 400 acres, as to one one-fourth the size” — the North St. Louis site — “provides them with a lot of room to be able to grow, to expand or do whatever they wish on their property. It provides them with a lot more opportunity and a lot more flexibilty in the future. When you’re talking about building a billion-dollar facility on a 99-year timeline, being able to have additional property certainly is going to be a benefit not only to the taxpayers, but also to NGA.”
A scheduling conflict prevented U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., from attending the briefing on Monday. However, he provided a statement reaffirming his support.
“Scott Air Force Base is the only site that benefits the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and our national defense,” Kirk said. “Relocating to Scott Air Force Base means immediate access to free land, space for growth and force protection, and the elimination of the vulnerable 20-mile data connection.”
In late October, St. Clair County officials succeeded in packing the Katy Cavins Community Center in O’Fallon with more than 200 elected leaders and members of the public to show their support for the county site. The occasion was a discussion and review of the environmental impact statement for the county site issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the site selection process.
The only potential problem with the county site cited by the impact statement was the discovery of a few scattered artifacts on the site dating from the 1850s, when a German immigrant family had farmed the land.
Officially, four sites are still in the running for what is being called NGA West: two are located in St. Louis County — Fenton, Mo., and Mehlville, Mo. — while the third is in North St. Louis. The fourth candidate site is a 182-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 Director Robert Cardillo is scheduled to make the final decision in March, with the building scheduled for completion by 2021.
News Leader reporter Mark Hodapp contributed to this report.