It was just about a year ago that the tidbit surfaced in that font of all the best gossip (and sadly, the most reliable news), Jerry Berger's column: "After five years of encouraging others to move downtown, both Kevin Montgomery Smith and Scenna Shipley have ankled Downtown St. Louis Partnership to work in Portland, Ore., with their former boss, Kim Kimbrough."
Set aside the troubling word choice for a moment (ankled? Why can't this man speak regular English?) and focus instead on the disconcerting content. Montgomery Smith and Shipley actually had decamped earlier in the year, after Franklin "Kim" Kimbrough left to become the president and CEO of what's now the Association for Portland Progress, i.e. Portland's version of the downtown partnership. This en masse relocation west begged the question of whether DTSLP really stood for Ditching This St. Louis Place.
Earlier this year, Bob Bedell left his post at the helm of the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission, calling himself "extremely excited" to return to Indianapolis and a similar position there.
Now comes word of another relatively big fish jumping out of our small pond: Porter Arneill, until a few weeks ago a big-wig at the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission (RAC), has accepted the position of public art administrator for Kansas City. He started his job in late July, taking his advocacy of civic arts with him.
What gives when these kinds of public figures often the same people we've seen extolling the virtues of St. Louis and exhorting others to appreciate the city jump ship? It wouldn't be unreasonable to look ourselves in the civic mirror and wallow in "why didn't they want us?" self-pity. Even Chad Cooper, the first elected president of Metropolis St. Louis, was last spotted living the high life in New York City, for Pete's sake! (It's okay, Chad, we still love you; now come on home.)
The It's-Not-Us-It's-Them Theory:
Maybe some people were never going to stay anyway, due to something in their character that we couldn't control. One look at Kimbrough's resume detailing his prior stints as grand poobah of similar efforts in Jackson, Mississippi, and Roanoke, Virginia and you start to get the feeling that this is a guy who could be selling widgets or sofas or cities. A civic gun-for-hire, you think, born to change allegiances when the right offer comes along you heard it here first: keep an eye on the RCGA's Dick Fleming for tendencies in this direction or when the situation at hand sours, as some speculate happened when the Slay administration, none-too-friendly to Kimbrough's approach, swept in.
The It's-Us-Isn't-It? Theory
Let's face it, Porter Arneill never had it too easy in da Lou. He was quoted in a USA Today story admitting that, "St. Louis does not have a great public art program." His pet project, The People Project, never took hold in the popular imagination hmm, maybe The Pet Project would've worked better. He was a favorite whipping boy for RFT columnist Eddie Silva, whose parting shot grouped Arneill among "purveyors of bad taste."
Still, it's not hard to also see the carrot across the state: Kansas City, unlike St. Louis, has a "one percent for art" program, setting aside (you guessed it) one percent of the public costs of civic construction to fund public art programs. It's proven pretty popular there, and has been used to the kinds of great effects that Arneill must have been frustrated not to pull off here.
The Ineffable-Siren-Song-of-Another-City Theory
Ok, so maybe St. Louis doesn't suck, and maybe they're not just gladhanding climbers, but there was just something out there they couldn't resist. Was it the strong pull of home and the familiar? Bob Bedell had served for eight years with the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association prior to coming to St. Louis, so his desire to return there was understandable.
Shipley and Montgomery Smith never seemed anything but sincere in their efforts on behalf of downtown St. Louis, in the areas of business development and housing, respectively. Perhaps Portland just out-cooled the Gateway City; maybe Kim Kimbrough is the World's Greatest Living Boss; could be they just needed to spread their wings a little bit. In the Pacific Northwest, specifically, where even spotted owls spread their wings in peace.
Whatever the reasons behind these leave-takings, one thing's for sure: you can't pay people to care. A job, no matter its attendant salary and perks and prestige, won't be enough to keep folks around for the long haul. The mercenary can always be lured away by a better offer, the idealistic might find more fertile ground for their dreams, the young can't help but be curious about the other side of the mountain.
And in the end, it doesn't matter much, because while the names rotate at the top of the organizational charts of Important Groups, the true heavy lifting of making St. Louis great again is carried out by the rest of us. The residents of city neighborhoods, folks who work in neighborhood corner stores and taverns, people whose kids are in the public schools: all people who may never find themselves on t.v. touting the good qualities of the city. But make no mistake, their cheerleading will still resonate after the last Grand Poobah has left town.