Editor’s note: This post was republished with permission from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s Growthology blog.
This is the second of a two-part post on St. Louis, the headwinds to growth the city has faced, and how to get on track for sustainable growth.
No longer the home of the St. Louis Rams, the Edward Jones Dome stands like an elephant in the room of a city that was once a “top 10” town. My hometown has faced economic decline, the loss of its NFL team and, quite frankly, its status as an industrious, powerhouse city. But from North Broadway, in the cool shadow of the now-vacated Dome, you can hear music echo off of the cobblestone streets of Laclede’s Landing—St. Louis’ oldest district.
Just like those old cobblestone streets once walked by traders and pioneering merchants, the road struggling to adjust to global economic trends or national regulatory policy is not easy or smooth. So, how does a historically impressive city like St. Louis get back on track as a growing and attractive 21st century city?
Tax incentives aren’t the answer
In the 1990s, as the city desperately worked to attract an NFL team, it offered tax breaks, a new stadium and other incentives that would haunt it in the future. While proponents claim that a new, limited-use stadium will generate employment, tax revenue and increased “economic activity,” study after study shows the project generally fails to reach those lofty goals.
Similarly, the city must move away from offering packages to lure established companies or franchises to relocate. Tax incentive deals generally act as a mere shuffling of jobs from one area to another—no new jobs are created. And the roots of those organizations don’t reach as deep into the city’s culture and heritage as companies that were established in St. Louis.
Show-Me homegrown investment
A move away from tax incentives doesn’t mean the city should be miserly with its resources. St. Louis should explore bold projects that create a shared experience among all its citizens. The real benefit that comes from a big professional sports team is that it cultivates civic pride. When people feel they are part of something bigger than themselves, they want to strengthen their city by developing stronger connections and addressing potential challenges.
Endeavor Insight found that most entrepreneurs that start high growth firms start them in the city they live in—the city they are invested in. Knowing this, St. Louis ought to focus on cultivating the talent and potential that already exists, which includes the return of former residents to St. Louis in what can be called a “boomerang effect.” These individuals are often drawn home to raise their family, and are generally near the traditional peak age for entrepreneurship, right around 40. Developing policy to capitalize on the passion of these individuals, who have returned because of their connection to the city, is one way St. Louis can nourish a stronger feeling of civic engagement.
Tap into talent
St. Louis also has the advantage of two high-quality universities in its city limits, Saint Louis University and the world-class Washington University. These universities have the capability to produce superstar talent that disrupts old markets or innovates and creates new ones. While the city’s business climate may have taken a prolonged blow in regards to connectivity, there still remains a talented pool of individuals who can compete nationally and globally, as evidenced by native St. Louisan, Jack Dorsey.
Universities are also a bastion of immigrant talent; which St. Louis has been wise to nurture. The St. Louis Mosaic Project is an effort to integrate immigrants into the city by helping them find companies that need their skillsets, gain access to education and start their own companies. The business environment in a city and its entrepreneurial ecosystem thrives when it represents a minimum level of diversity, connectivity, fluidity and density. Immigrants, more entrepreneurial as a cohort than native-born, have the potential to play a key role in building an ecosystem that gives the overall business climate a strong leg of support.
So, St. Louis lost its pro football team and is struggling to find itself again. The road back may start along those cobblestones, deeply rooted in the city’s culture and heritage, but leads to a new path that capitalizes on existing strengths for growth.
Chris Jackson is a research assistant in Research and Policy for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, assisting in the understanding of what policies and environments best promote entrepreneurship and education in the pursuit of economic growth.
Find Jackson on Twitter: @chrisjack_son.