Forum Regionalism Initiative: “Acting as One” Begins With Listening

By on December 8, 2017

by Tom Finan, Executive Director, Construction Forum STL

On Wednesday (Dec. 6), a large audience of “honorable people” listened, learned, and began a dialogue on what it will take for the St. Louis region to “act as one”.

There were 542 people registered for Wednesday’s event. It capped two days of meetings with area officials and  media for speaker David Rusk. Rusk met with:

  • KMOX Radio;
  • 12 St. Louis County mayors from the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis, hosted by Bridgeton Mayor Terry Briggs;
  • St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann at the St. Charles County executive offices;
  • Rusk in Illinois at Holland Construction

    Madison County, IL Executive Kurt Prenzler, former St Clair County Board Chairman John Baricevic; and Leadership Council of Southwestern Illinois Executive Director Ronda Sauget, hosted by Bruce Holland of Holland Construction Services;

  • Representatives of Better Together, Bi-State, Commerce Bank, East-West Gateway, The St. Louis Freightway, and the St. Louis Regional Chamber, and Washington University,  hosted at the Chamber’s office;

    Rusk at STL Regional Chamber

  • Sheila Sweeney, executive director and Joe Bannister, vice president of real estate and community investment for the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership at the Cheshire Inn; and
  • KETC and KWMU.

The 77-year-old Rusk handled the forced march in stride, holding his audiences and Forum staff rapt with the breadth of his historic and statistical knowledge. Commenting on the diversity of viewpoints coming together on the area of St. Louis regionalism, he paraphrased an observation made by his father, legendary U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk:

“He said that it didn’t matter if a person was Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. What mattered was if they were honorable or dishonorable. He felt that if honorable people listen to one another long enough, they will find common ground.”

“Acting as One” was the topic of speaker David Rusk, who began what will be a 13-month series of programs designed by Construction Forum STL to examine and promote focused action toward true regional collaboration. Rusk is the author of “Cities Without Suburbs,” the seminal book on regionalism, now in its fourth edition. Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque, and is a three-time scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Rusk began his presentation to the Forum and his interview with KWMU’s Don Marsh by thanking the people of St. Louis for “lifting my spirits”.  He said that he works from his home base in Washington, DC “the epicenter of gridlock,” and is frequently disheartened. “To come out here to the St. Louis community and meet so many fine elected leaders, business leaders, civic leaders, andactivist citizens just reminds me that America is filled with an awful lot of good people.”

Drill-Down on Regionalism

Rusk’s knowledge of what has worked and what hasn’t vis a vis regional collaboration is voluminous. He has worked with hundreds of municipal and regional governments across the country. At the Regional Chamber offices one young policy wonk came up to Rusk after the meeting and said, “You’ve forgotten more statistics than I’ve done in my entire life.”

The crux of Rusk’s presentation (click to download slide deck) centered around three possible ways to deal with fragmentation:

  • City/county consolidation
  • What Rusk terms “communities of common interest”
  • Strengthening and/or reforming regional agencies

He noted that the “little box” (many relatively small municipal units) St. Louis region is competing against “big box” regions from Albuquerque to Charlotte which have long histories of streamlined governmental approaches to policy and development. Even if, he said, St. Louis County and City would mend their 141-year-old divide, it would not give St. Louis much of a competitive advantage.

The County, he said, has little in the way of an undeveloped land “dowry” to bring to the “wedding”. Municipalities would choose to retain their identities and local services, just as has occurred in places like Indianapolis and Louisville after mergers. His research has shown that little, other than functions like elections would actually be “saved” in a merger. Which begs the question, he said, of the fact that the City and County combined represent only half the region’s 2.8 million population.

Making the Home Fit the Issue

Rusk suggests that on a sub-regional basis many of the problems of fragmentation could be modeled around “Communities of Common Interest (CCI)”.  Home rule is respected but the size of the multi-municipal “home” is determined by the practical scope of the issue being addressed, whether, for example, it were watershed management, joint police services, or regional recreation facilities.”

State law, if enacted, would allow counties to designate a community of common interest covering all cities with a common problem or service need. Cities would be convened by the county to study the problem and plan the solution. Governing bodies of the constituent cities or voters for the entire area as a whole would ratify the solution. Once that was done there would be no dropping out or veto power by individual municipalities.

“If you are part of the problem you are part of the solution,” Rusk said. The “have” municipalities would lift up the “have nots” who were part of the CCI. St. Louis has an example of such an effort in the Metropolitan Sewer District.

Seeing the Mountain

Rusk suggested that strengthening and/or combining functions of the area’s regional inter-governmental organizations (RIGOs) — East-West Gateway Council of Governments and Bi-State (which was actually created by both state legislatures to address regional issues) is another possibility.

He gave two examples of RIGOs with “real teeth” — Portland Metro and Twin Cities Met Council. The Portland (OR) council has a vision statement that is only two sentences long, Rusk said. “Everybody should be able to see Mount Hood. Every child should be able to walk to a library.” What that mission implies he said is a commitment to pollution-free skies that impacts such issues as transportation policy and liveable, walkable neighborhoods that dictate development strategy.

The ideal regional agency, he said, would combine regional land use and transportation planning; own and operate key regional infrastructure such as transit, airports, ports, water supply and sewage treatment; act as a unified regional economic development agency; and have limited taxing power to support its operations.,

Rusk said that in raising the two examples (Portland and Twin Cities) he was suggesting that the St. Louis region consider the impact of regional approaches versus the specifics of those two areas.  But he also noted “payoff for acting as one” has measurable outcomes, which he demonstrated by comparing

  • Job Growth 1969-2009  (Twin Cities +123%, Portland +163%, St. Louis +46%)
  • GDP Growth 2011-2016 (Twin Cities +18.8%, Portland 10.5%, St. Louis +16.3%)
  • Central City Income as % of Suburban Income (Minneapolis 85%, Portland 101%, St. Louis 72%)
  • Moody’s City Bond Rating  (Minneapolis Aa1, Portland Aaa, St. Louis A3)

Honorable People Reaching Common Ground

Rusk was introduced at the Forum presentation by Forum President Joe Blanner, who has spent the last three years researching and writing the history of regional collaboration in the St. Louis region. Regionalism is one of the four core focuses of the Forum (the others are diversity/inclusion, workforce, and collaboration).

Blanner outlined the series of five programs  “Missing Pieces: Solving the Puzzle of STL Regional Collaboration“that the Forum has slated:

  • Rusk will be followed on March 7 by David Miller, a Rusk friend and colleague. Miller, a  professor  at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, serves on the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission (the area’s RIGO), and organizes CONNECT, an alliance of Pittsburgh and 40 surrounding municipalities.  (NOTE: The Allegheny Conference on Community Development was organized several decades before David came on the scene.   He was director of the Pennsylvania Economy League-Southwestern Division, a sub-unit of the Allegheny Conference.)
  • In its third 2018 event during the  summer, Construction Forum STL will present a speaker on the New York Port Authority, which was the model for Bi-State Development in the St. Louis region.
  • The fourth event will be a moderated exercise, which will include edited video of the previous three programs, followed by a working session. The event will be structured as a “hackathon” with the objective of identifying and defining action items. The Forum will be assisted by Mark Tranel,  director, UMSL Public Policy Research Center, in developing this effort.
  • A year from now, the Forum hopes to present the findings of that session, including recommendations and a working group to focus on actions going forward.

Construction Forum STL has been assisted in planning  and promoting this initiative regional individuals and organizations including Bi-State Development; The St. Louis Regional Freightway; The Municipal League of Metro St. Louis; St. Louis Council of Construction Consumers; the Urban Land Institute of St. Louis: and Dick Fleming, CEO of Community Development Ventures, Inc. and former CEO of the St. Louis Regional Chamber.


About Tom Finan