Meet the Low-Profile Group That Wields Big Power in STL County

By on March 14, 2017

From St. Louis Post-Dispatch:  When Ferguson riots left behind the charred hulks of buildings on West Florissant Avenue, St. Louis County tapped the funds of a little-known economic development agency to tear them down.

When Ursuline Academy wanted to finance the expansion of the Catholic girls school in Oakland, it turned to that same agency to issue bonds.

As St. Louis County laid plans for an amateur sports corridor around Creve Coeur Lake Park, it was the same low-profile body that began paying politically connected lawyers for the effort.

But it wasn’t until a St. Louis County Council member threatened to hold up the acquisition of Jamestown Mall that the work of the St. Louis County Port Authority came under a spotlight.

Amid the alphabet soup of economic development agencies throughout the region, the St. Louis County Port Authority stands out as among the more powerful.

Unlike many similar agencies, its actions don’t ultimately go back to a legislative body — in this case, the St. Louis County Council — for final approval. It doles out millions of dollars a year in grants and contracts, one of which was awarded without other bids, possibly in violation of state statute.

And despite its name, it rarely deals with barge docks or loading platforms.

Rochelle Walton Gray — the north St. Louis County Councilwoman whose district includes the shuttered mall property — said she was taken by “total surprise” when the port authority did an end run around her Jamestown Mall legislation. She had sponsored the bill to give the council more sway over who develops the property, a bill that her colleagues voted down because some were worried it would face legal challenges.

“I wasn’t aware that they didn’t have to — and we’re still checking — have to be along a waterway as far as their boundaries are concerned,” Walton Gray said of the port authority.

While the St. Louis and Kansas City port authorities focus on developing infrastructure for navigating the waterways or developing the riverfront, the St. Louis County Port Authority acts as both a driver and a behind-the-scenes player on projects anywhere in St. Louis County — not just the banks of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

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