A World of Possibilities

By on September 28, 2014

by Tom Finan, Executive Director
Construction Forum STL

When we were winding down the recent Construction Forum STL program on workforce diversity at the Moto Museum on Sept. 9, the manager of global capital procurement strategy for a multinational company came up to talk with me.

This individual has been a champion of diversity, but he is concerned: What good will it do, he asked, if we achieve workforce and contractor diversity, but fail to attract future projects? Where will those projects come from? What will they look like? In short, what will we build tomorrow?

That question is exactly the kind of question for which the Forum was established. It resonated so much that we decided to tackle it head on. Both the first issue of Construction Forum STL online magazine and the Forum’s December quarterly program will be themed, “What Will We Build Tomorrow?”

Addressing the Core Issues

I glibly responded to the question that day at the Moto Museum that our path to future construction would be clearer if we had a governor who didn’t veto funding for a Metrolink stop at Cortex. Cortex is one of our top potential job generators. It is the proposed site for Square co-founder Jim McKelvey’s LaunchCode project, which seeks to turn unemployed or underemployed people into sorely-needed computer coders. So, from my perspective, the Governor’s action seemed shortsighted and counterintuitive to job creation and development.

Later that same day Sen. Claire McCaskill announced a $10.3 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery TIGER grant for a CORTEX MetroLink station and expansion of the Central West End MetroLink station. So the job creation train at Cortex and the bio corridor was literally kept on the tracks.

But it shouldn’t be that hard. The more I hear about the steps we are taking forward, the more convinced I am that the core issues that we seek to address through the Forum – such as diversity, political fractionalization, workforce, and contract environment – will be critical in determining what we build (and if we build) in the St. Louis region tomorrow.

One thing is certain: the potential sources for investment and building here will be far different from what those of us who grew up in the St. Louis construction industry experienced in our lifetimes.

One example of those non-traditional sources of growth is international investment. Our typical approach to international investment here has been to try to hit the home run, e.g., the time, effort, and money that were expended a few years ago on making our area a “China hub”. In reality, it appears that the kind of international investment that could reshape our area is much more incremental and under the radar.

For example, our culture, dating to the late ‘90s, of nurturing biotech startups through our universities and entities such as the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and Cortex is beginning to pay dividends. Recently German seed company KWS announced that it was going to locate its North American research center at Bio Research & Development Growth Park (BRDG), located by the Danforth Center. A representative of the company said at the time of the announcement that KWS had selected the site over locations in San Francisco, Boston and the Research Triangle in North Carolina in part because of its location, “…in the middle of a cluster of universities, institutes and startups, … offering proximity to one of the key markets and major centers of excellence in plant research.”

The Potential of Immigrants

Something even more incremental – and more likely in the long run to result in economic growth – is our ability to attract and retain immigrants. While St. Louis was built by immigrants, our metropolitan area lags far behind other cities of similar size in terms of immigrant population.

And that is holding back our growth as an area.  At that same Moto Museum program, architect Peter Tao of Tao + Lee Associates was bouncing out of his seat trying to ask a question, but never got the chance.  Afterwards Peter shared his thoughts with me by email.

Peter Tao wrote me that he grew up in St. Louis, “in a good neighborhood from a hardworking professional services family, but I still experienced racism first hand.” For many years, he chose a more diverse work environment, working in New York and London before returning to St. Louis in 1995.

“When I chose to come back to St. Louis  to start my business from my days living and working in NYC and London,” Peter wrote, “a small group of us attended a private MBE program meeting with the City of St. Louis. They did not even consider (nor respect) that Hispanics or Asians were a minority.

“They simply said we were too small a percentage or too minority of a minority to be cared about or included in any MBE programs. Go figure.”

The Mosaic Project

Peter Tao introduced me via email to Betsy Cohen, who is director of The St. Louis Mosaic Project. We agreed to meet for coffee. The Mosaic Project was launched in 2012 in response to an economic impact report, outlining St. Louis to be lagging in immigrant growth as well as highlighting the economic benefits of increasing its foreign-born population.  Its stated goal is for our region to be “the fastest growing major metro for foreign-born by 2020.”

A really smart person (undergrad Wellesley, BA Economics, Harvard, MBA), who spent three decades in various national and international marketing and management posts at Purina, Betsy understands the importance of letting the numbers speak.

She has procured over 100 press mentions for the Mosaic Project during her tenure – from a  feature on  Anderson Cooper’s American Journey on CNN to  an online piece last week  on  the  Inside Higher Ed website detailing Mosaic’s efforts to retain international students post-graduation. But she lets hard research figures lead the way.

“The Economic Impact of Immigration on St. Louis,” written by Jack Strauss, chair of St. Louis University’s Simon Center for Regional Forecasting in 2012, noted that St. Louis Metro has approximately 126,500 immigrants and that immigrants comprise 4.5% of the region’s population. Other metro areas in the top 20 largest average four to five times that number of foreign-born residents. There are signs of change: Currently our region is the sixth-fastest growing major metropolitan area in the rate of foreign-born growth.

The foreign-born community in this region is predominantly highly-educated, with white collar jobs. They earn, more on average ($83,312 compared to $67,619) than the average native-born resident. Immigrants here are three times more likely to be high-skilled than unskilled, one of the highest ratios in the country. The foreign-born tend to be scientists, professionals and managers, 44% are likely to have at least a college education and are also more likely to have an advanced degree.

Part of the Mosaic Project’s efforts are directed at introducing foreign-born professionals and business people to the St. Louis business community,  Cohen said. For example, the Engineer’s Club of St. Louis has opened up its monthly fellowship dinners to host two immigrant engineers at each meeting at no cost, allowing valuable career connections to be made.

An Entrepreneurial Spirit

They are also 60 percent more likely to start a business than are native-born St. Louis residents.  This is the job and development generation piece.  Cohen cites as one example of this entrepreneurial spirit the recently opened United Provisions store, located in Washington University’s recently-completed project in the U City Loop.

It is a high-concept store, modeled on the Eataly food market  in New York City and Chicago. The project was managed by Shayn Prapaisilp son of Suchin Prapaisilp, a legendary serial entrepreneur in the immigrant community. In addition to the international food market it includes the Dining District, headed by celebrity chef Chef Ben Poremba, a coffee bar by Northwest Coffee, a sushi bar headed by renowned local sushi chef Naomi Hamamura . Urban Provisions’ interior, designed by Tao + Lee,  features large planks of light reclaimed wood and splashes of red that gives the product-dense store an open, gallery-like feel.

Suchin Prapaisilp is the owner of a group of Thai restaurants and of Global Foods Market in Kirkwood. In 2007 Prapaisilp was named to the “Outstanding 50 Asian Americans in Business” by New York-based Asian American Business Development Center.  That’s a long way from where he found himself when he arrived in St. Louis in 1970 from Thailand, after his mother gave him $700 to get here.

Prapaisilp soon noticed there was not a way for recent immigrants here to obtain the food from their homelands. In 1975, with $2,800 saved up from working three jobs, in partnership with his brother, he opened Jay’s International Food Company on South Grand, one of the first international grocery stores in St. Louis.

The two brothers drove to Chicago every weekend in an old UPS truck to buy food for the store. Suchin’s first restaurant was the King and I, opened in 1981. He opened Global Foods Market in 1999 at its present location in Kirkwood. That company reported revenue of $13 million in 2012, the St. Louis Business Journal reported. While his brother returned to Thailand some years ago, his sisters, children, and other family members work in his businesses.

The Prapaisilp family continues to expand their holdings. Two cousins from the younger generation recently opened a frozen yogurt store. According to the Nov. 20, 2013 Federal Register, Suchin Prapaisilp; Fanyu Meng, Frontenac;  Yahong Zhang, Changsha City, Hunan Province, China;, and Thomas Cy Wong, St. Louis, filed notice that as a group they were acquiring voting shares in Superior Bank in Hazelwood.

A New Perspective

Beyond an entrepreneurial spirit, education, work ethic, strong family bonds, and sources of capital, our region’s growing international community brings one more important thing to the table – a global perspective.  While many immigrants say that some of the things they appreciate most about St. Louis are the friendliness of St. Louisans and the family-focused culture here, we lose them if we ask the high school question or say “that’s the way it’s always been done here.”

That’s a good thing. An investment of new ideas, knowledge, hard work, and outside capital is one path for us to get to the answer to the question, “What will we build tomorrow?”

About Tom Finan