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Jan 2001 / church and state :: email this story to a friend

Civics Lesson
By Thomas Crone

On Monday, December 8, the former Deputy Mayor for Development in the City of St. Louis, Mike Jones, joined the hosts of "The Wire," a weekly talk show on KDHX, for an hour's conversation on the successes and failures of the City in attracting new development. Also highly touched upon was discussion on the civic culture of St. Louis: what's strong, what aspects of building a more complete community need work.

Mike Jones

While allusions were made to Jones' relationship within the office of the Mayor, the discussion veered towards broader issues, rather than the relationship between Jones and Mayor Clarence Harmon. The former Alderman, city official and Anheuser-Busch exec was candid in his exchange, never begging off of a question. There was also a clear tendency, to still drop in an occasional "we," since projects that he helped moved along are still in various stages of activity.

What follows is an edited transcription, featuring some of the highlights of the interview.

On the turnover rate in City government: I think it's a pretty good mix. People always focus on the names that are there a long time, because those are the names you're familiar with, kinda like in the Congress and the Senate. There's a fairly healthy turnover. You wouldn't want it to turn over so rapidly that you lose institutional memory and transition from one period to the next. As a general rule, there's a decent mix between new and experienced legislators and people in City government.

On the Board of Aldermen: It was interesting coming back after 15 years away from the Board, 12 or 13 years not in City government. It seems to be much more contentious, much more personal. Much more divided over racial lines. And while I think the City was much more segregated 25 years ago, not nearly as diverse, there was much more camaraderie. There was a collegial environment. I don't see that on this Board of Aldermen. I think that's a tragedy. I think the City suffers a little bit because of that change. I think the job is the same, but the tenor has changed.

I don't know what went down first: politics or media. But they both have traveled the low road at about the same time. And they've reinforced each other at a level that I don't think is good for a country or for the media or for government.

On public service: Public service is hard anyway. There are people who have an interest and will do it. But I think the personal attack philosophy, taking down your enemy at all costs ... that and the media's need for everybody to be the next Woodward and Bernstein, looking for the next scandal... all that coarsening of the environment makes it harder to attract people. The relationship between politics and government, the distance between the two get farther and farther away every day.

On the tone of the next Mayoral campaign: I think the media will have a lot to do with that. And that will be if the media in all its incarnations decide that the most important thing in March, 2001, is what will improve the City and move the region forward. If they find that important and pound the candidates with that, rather than who shot your cat, or who killed your dog... there are more than enough serious issues that we face, that you can stay busy asking questions for the next six months. Does the media have the discipline to avoid the cheap shot and the easy question. As a general rule, politicians will play to whatever level the media lets them. If you go with the dumb stuff, that's exactly what they'll give you.

On the Arena: When you look at a development site, you have to think of the highest, best-use. That's your first filter. The other thing is that people don't have money. People show up regularly at the Mayor's office and they've all got an idea, but not a checkbook. Fundamentally, the City doesn't need a lot of unfunded dreams. You need the facilities to get these done, in a reasonable time period and with an upside. If the history of the last 20 years would've been different, you might have approached that site totally differently. But in 1998-99, given the history of the City and its' current economic condition, I think we made the only rational decision. That's the one decision I never had any doubts about. There're a couple I sweated and I hoped they turned out right. But the Arena was one in which I always thought we were right on.

On Metrolink: I think it's unconscionable that the Metrolink doesn't stop at the Arena site, the Zoo, the Community College and the Science Center. You'll never be able to explain to anybody who's in from out of town, while they're staying downtown and want to get to the Zoo, they can't get there by Metrolink. It's a terrible decision. We could've won it, we should've won it. And that's one that I'll regret every time I pass a Metrolink and see where it's going, rather than where it's not going.

On the new Cardinals ballpark: I think if you can be real hard-headed and stay real focused, you can get a deal that makes some sense for the public, and let the Cardinals get a deal that makes sense for the Cardinals. My position is that you get the best deal for your client, and when I was with the City, I worried about the City, not the guy sitting across the table.

On the Kiel Opera House: I think there's probably a role for the Opera House. Right now it's a matter of finding out how much market there is for entertainment in St. Louis. Basically, there's only so much money people spend for discretionary entertainment, whether it's baseball, movie, theater, whatever. The question is do we have the population for another venue. I think the Opera House is a great asset. The problem is, we're still trying to make Grand Center work. It's not like we're booking Grand Center every night. Those are the tricky problems when you're in the Mayor's office that you're trying to balance. Seldom do you have the opportunity to say "this one's very right and this one's very wrong." Usually, you're always confronted with, "this one has some merit, and that one has some merit." The question is how to you benefit most of the people most of the time.

On the Old Post Office: That's the core of downtown. Any successful revitalization of downtown requires a reuse of the Old Post Office. And a reasonable disposition of the Syndicate Trust, Paul Brown and Arcade buildings around the core. That's going to have to be addressed. Right now I believe most of those properties have an asking price that's way too high to support any use or redevelopment. Having said that, you're still going to have to be engaged in mechanisms to bring those back in service, or create some additional type of space through demolition, or whatever. That's the next big challenge. Washington Avenue is working fine. Cupples will happen. Market Street is very strong. So the real issue does become the solution for the Old Post Office.

On Grand and Gravois (segueing into population loss in the City): I'm not a preservationist, per se. I love great architecture, but I'm utilitarian about structures. Everyone built for a purpose, whether commercial or some other. Having said that, I think the bank building merits saving. I particularly think saving that building makes sense, rather than putting another Walgreen's there. I think it'll be tough to put it into market reuse. I think the city has to get involved in some fashion. That would be one that I would support, with whatever public assistance is necessary to make it happen. The real key to that corner and many other is repopulating the City.

Growth creates density, and density creates enough market that you can support activity. The City's biggest problem in losing population is that we live in a region that has not grown in 20 years. Twenty years ago we had a population of approximately 2.4 million people. In 2000, we had 2.6 million. We had two percent growth, while the country's grown 30 percent. For all intents and purposes, we've gotten smaller.

It's the infusion of new people that makes it possible for a City to grow, because there are people attracted to an urban lifestyle. And if you have a growing region that attracts net new people to the overall population base, then the City, any city, will capture a share of that. It gives you population and density in number that makes these projects work. You have the people that want them, will pay for them.

On the big picture: We're just slowly beginning to believe that if we don't change, we'll become irrelevant. I do not believe in the linear process of history. And anthropology is the studying of civilizations that no longer exist. There's no inherent destiny that the City of St. Louis and the region will prosper and grow. It will if we can remain competitive with everyone else. If we can't, we won't. We'll still be talking about the 1904 World's Fair and people will be talking about St. Louis ... "yeah, they used to be something." It's a matter of people listing some things and getting it done.

On the rallying point of 2004: I think anything done to energize this overall community, in a way that brings us all together, is a good thing. Particularly if it's using history and tradition to create a new vision for the future.

On his own future: I would probably hope to be doing something semi-public. Not governmental, but something that'll allow me to stay involved in public policy and economic development.

(So you're not running for Mayor?)

No. That's not a hole I'm trying to fill.

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