Forum Speaker: STL Regional Success Demands Groundbreaking Approaches

By on June 19, 2018


by Tom Finan, Executive Director, Construction Forum STL

What do preparing for the workforce disruption caused by artificial intelligence and educating young people in media literacy have to do with regional collaboration? Quite a bit actually according to Peter Goldmark, Construction Forum STL’s latest speaker in its series on regionalism. Goldmark spoke before audience of about 400 people last Friday (June 15) at Sheet Metal Workers Grand Hall at Jefferson and Chouteau.

If you’re coming from Goldmark’s intellectual neighborhood it’s not such a long hike to the connections he drew. He certainly has the bonafides to speak on technology and media literacy. Goldmark grew up around disruptive technology (his father stepfather Peter C. Goldmark was responsible for technology related to LP records, color television, and video recordings) and high standards in journalism (his stepfather was Richard Salant, longtime head of CBS News).

Peter C. Goldmark Jr., is no slouch himself when it comes to accomplishments. Roles he once held include president of the Rockefeller Foundation; publisher of the International Herald Tribune; and director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s climate and air program. He has taught at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. But it was of his experience in the post he held three decades ago, as director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, that he was asked to speak.

The NY/NJ port authority, established in 1921, was the model on which Bi-State Development was based. The 1,500-square-mile port district oversees airports, seaports, bridges, tunnels, and development within a 25-mile radius of the Statue of Liberty. The PANYNJ has its own 1,700 person police force. The port authority has broad leeway to undertake development activities. It generates its own substantial income and is not reliant on tax revenue.

For a rundown of the Port Authority of NY & NJ by the numbers, click here.

Goldmark said he was reluctant to serve up his experience at the PANYNJ as a case study or roadmap for St. Louis audiences. But there were object lessons from that experience that shaped his current emphasis on both embracing disruptive technologies and on informed civic engagement.

Prior to taking the on the PANYNJ,  Goldmark served as budget director for New York Governor Hugh Carey. He was the architect of the effort that curtailed budget crisis that threatened to destroy both the state of New York and New York City.

“Recovery” Meetings

At the Port Authority he convened a series of  citizens’ “recovery” meetings, which developed innovative concepts for revitalizing the region’s economy. Among them were building a series of manufacturing facilities within depressed neighborhoods and building the world’s first container ship port — before any container ships had been launched.

It was that kind of broad thinking that Goldmark was encouraging in the Forum audience. He pointed out that artificial intelligence is a real threat to tomorrow’s workforce. By getting out in front of emerging issues like AI, Goldmark said, the St. Louis region can take a leadership position in the nation.

He suggested that those helping to prepare a regional agenda take at least one note from the playbook used by the New York recovery effort. Goldmark said that he submitted a longer list than he expected to have approved to the two states’ governors (who had veto power). After they had knocked off a couple of items there was still a few core action items, Goldmark noted with a grin.

Goldmark said that the freedom of the PANYNJ from political interference was one of the things that allowed it to be effective during his tenure. He told of threatening to resign when a governor attempted to pressure him for patronage positions. The recent political machinations of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and the current bifurcated NY/NJ dual CEO structure has derailed the authority’s effectiveness he said.

The former newsman (he still writes occasionally for Newsday) said that it’s important that young people be trained to discern the quality of the news they are reading if there is to be an informed electorate. He encouraged education in media literacy — the ability to ask simple questions such as the provenance of a news source (ala the popular RT online site, a moniker meant to disguise Russia Today) and whether a source publishes corrections. Offline, he told the story of a widely-circulated online report from the “Denver Herald”  (there is no such publication).

Goldmark opened up the floor at his presentation for extended Q&A. The audience had apparently heard his encouragement of participative democracy, and offered up a number of suggestions. Among them:

  • Representatives from St. Louis YouthBuild  encouraged audience members to help young people find careers in the construction industry.
  • Nicole Adewale, principal and president of ABNA asked Goldmark to what extent was leadership engaged in getting the community buy-in to the PANYNJ and how the authority addressed inequities across the region.  Adewale suggested that it is one thing to have a regional collaborative authority and it is another to have the community support it. Goldmark told her PANYNJ had some problems to start, but they kept working at it until they had the community’s support.
  • Realtor Eric Friedman suggested that the region come together and explore the potential impact of areawide gigabit bandwidth.
  • Shelley Welsch, who recently left her longtime post of mayor of University City, suggested  to Friday’s audience that areawide groups, like Goldmark’s “recovery” gatherings could help set the priorities for regionalism in St. Louis. A longtime student of regionalism, Welsch recently shared with CFSTL  a file trove she has developed of documents on St. Louis regional government efforts. 
  • Jim Wild, executive director of the East-West Gateway Council of Governments (EWG) said that at its May 30 meeting, the East-West Gateway Board of Directors conducted a summit focusing on identifying key issues affecting the St. Louis region. The issues for discussion were identified as public safety/crime, education/workforce, economic development, and speaking with a common voice in Springfield and Jefferson City. Wild said that the board decided that citizen task forces would be convened to help set the regional agenda in those areas. At Goldmark’s suggestion, Wild said that he would provide Construction Forum STL with information for dissemination as the concept evolves.

Gathering of Leaders

The afternoon before Goldmark’s presentation (June 14), Jim Wild hosted a meeting of regional leaders with Goldmark at EWG’s offices.  Participating in the meeting, in addition to Forum representatives, were:

  • Neil Breitweiser, executive director, Jefferson County Port Authority;
  • Terry Briggs, mayor, Bridgeton (Municipal League of Metro St. Louis (MLMSTL);
  • Steve Ehlmann, county executive, St. Charles County, MO;
  • Phil Hickman, president, Associated Bank (Leadership Council of Southwestern Illinois (LCSI));
  • Pat Kelly, executive director, MLMSTL;
  • Mary Lamie, executive director, St. Louis Regional Freightway;
  • Norm McCourt, mayor, Black Jack (president, MLMSTL);
  • John Nations, CEO, Bi-State Development Agency;
  • Donna Richter, CEO, Southern Illinois Builders Association (SWLC board member);
  • Dr. Rhonda Sauget, executive director, LCSI;
  • Sheila Sweeney, CEO, St. Louis Economic Development Partnership;
  • Gerry Welch, mayor, Webster Groves (MLMSTL);  and
  • Ben McCall, deputy director, America’s Central Port, Granite City, IL  (LCSI).

In response to a question from Goldmark, those in the meeting agreed that leaders from the area generally see the region’s prospects in positive term. But they observed that that perspective had not translated to the perception by the general public.

Dr. Rhonda Sauget, executive director of the Leadership Council of Southwestern Illinois, said that it was unfortunate that the federal bidding process for NGA had pitted regional entities from Illinois and Missouri against one another. Sauget and Sheila Sweeney from the St. Louis Economic Partnership said that various agencies are now working together to mend fences and collaborate.

St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann said violent crime has tragic consequences at its primary nexuses in St. Louis City and North St. Louis County, but added that it has a compounding economic impact on the entire region. Ehlmann said that it is incumbent on all area leaders to work together on the crime issue.

Mary Lamie noted the example of the PANYNJ container port has a parallel in the St. Louis Region. The St. Louis Freightway recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Port of Plaquemines in Louisiana. A private company there is developing new technology which will allow containerized freight to travel on specially-designed self-powered river vessels, up the Mississippi to St. Louis and points north for distribution.

Wizard of Oz Moment

As Mary Lamie’s story indicated, the story of what Goldmark accomplished in New York and elsewhere, while in some cases decades past, proved extraordinarily relevant to the people of the St. Louis region today. The leadership assembled in the room at East-West Gateway “got it” in terms of the collective potential of the area.  They understand the importance of looking forward and anticipating technology and direction.

But some who were caucusing Friday during the networking period and after the event seemed disaffected with the current state of affairs. Some appeared to be looking for a glimmer of opportunity and for direction and leadership.

In his remarks and the discussions leading up to those remarks, Goldmark sought to lead them to the big ideas and critical thinking. He wanted to help them realize that — as in the closing scene of the “Wizard of Oz” — the really big solutions are right in their home town. He wanted them to know that THEY are the leadership and the “focused action” (referenced in the mission statement of the Forum) that can guide our region tomorrow.





About Tom Finan