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Recipe for a Renaissance – St. Louis is entering a boom period like no other before. Mayor Francis Slay discusses progress in the Gateway City.

December 22, 2005

By Jean Kennedy

Francis Slay is the quintessential St. Louisan.

Born on the South Side to a large Catholic family, Slay attended Saint Louis University Law School and practiced law at St. Louis’ Guilfoil, Petzall and Shoemake for 20 years before entering the political arena.

In a city known far and wide for its remarkable restaurants, St. Louis has enjoyed outstanding contributions from many in the very culinary Slay family. And although Francis Slay happens to have devoted his adult life to public service instead of outstanding cuisine, he has come up with a recipe for the city’s future that may well result in the greatest turnaround in its history.

 

THE PUBLIC SERVANT

Slay is the second oldest of 11 children. He attended St. Mary’s High School, graduated from Saint Louis University Law School and has been married for a quarter century. He and his wife have two children. They live in the same South Side neighborhood where he grew up.

He has been in public service for 20 years, first as a St. Louis Alderman, then as president of the Board of Aldermen and now as mayor for a second term.

 

A CITY IN TROUBLE

By the time Slay was sworn in as mayor for his first term, the city had sunk into what seemed like a slump too deep to climb out of. The antics of the Board of Alderman and St. Louis Public School Board made great newspaper copy, but embarrassed the city locally, regionally and nationally. American Airlines’ acquisition of TWA and the significant reduction in staff and flights hit the city — especially the meetings and convention industry — hard. People and businesses continued to flee the city for the suburbs.

Hope still lived, however. Hoteliers and a few developers continued to build in the city, and several new hotels opened, including a convention hotel, the Renaissance Grand.

Then, terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and St. Louis’ meetings and convention industry suffered a mortal wound. Knowing that other cities were also suffering didn’t change the facts: stories began circulating that some properties were on the brink of receivership. For a while, it seemed that there was no news but bad news.

 

CAN-DO ATTITUDE

Through all the tragedies and challenges, Slay’s administration was diligently working toward creating a “can-do” attitude at City Hall. While previous administrations had openly opposed major development projects, Mayor Slay embraced them.

“What is happening is a combination of things,” notes the mayor. “When I came into office, many projects were at a standstill. My administration consists of a very talented team of individuals who know how to get stuff done. Today the word is that it is easy to do business in the city. We can now issue a business permit 85 percent of the time in the same day.”

“We have a very business and development friendly style now, and not only can this group get it done, they can work on a lot of projects at a time. My development team and development director are really doing a great job.”

Evidence of this attitude and skill is everywhere. Slay’s team helped the stalled Washington Avenue project get moving, and the area, which includes America’s Center and the Edward Jones Dome, began to blossom. Lofts were developed and people began to move back to the city.

“We have added more than 5,000 residents during the past five years,” says Slay. “We expect that by 2006, we will have more people moving downtown than in the past five years. By 2007, we expect there to be 110,000 more people to be living or working in downtown St. Louis, and that doesn’t take into consideration all the visitors who come for meetings and conventions, and tourists who come down to visit the many attractions that we have.”

But will more people result in a brighter future?

“It is kind of a chicken-egg syndrome: which comes first, the people or the shops and services?” says the mayor. “We know that from other cityies’ experiences, if the people come, all else will follow.”

The truth of that statement is evident along Washington Avenue. Once the residents came, restaurants, shops, galleries, nightclubs and a grocery store followed. Suburbanites began to head downtown for nightlife. Something was beginning to take hold.

 

WHEN YOU’RE HOT, YOU’RE HOT

To say St. Louis is on the verge of a boom would be too mild. Explosion is more like it.

“Every single building downtown is in play,” says Slay. “What that means is that someone is looking at every available building in the central core, for a variety of development options, including residential or commercial use. We are now seeing thousands of people moving downtown who wouldn’t have even considered moving downtown a few years ago. This hasn’t happened in anyone’s memory. Our downtown is exploding.”

Billions — that’s right — billions of dollars are being and will be spent right here in River City, and everyone from meeting planners to weekend visitors to restaurateurs to retailers to everyday Joes will benefit.

“We have a billion and a half dollars in development going on right now,” says Slay. He has noted that there has been $2.8 billion in new investment in the last five years, and he expects that to grow to nearly $4 billion by this time next year.

Here is just a brief overview of some of the key developments going on in downtown St. Louis’ central corridor.

Ballpark and Ballpark Village. The new ballpark for the St. Louis Cardinals is part of a multi-use project called Ballpark Village. It will be developed in phases on the 12-acre site of what is now Busch Stadium. The project creates an urban neighborhood featuring residential units, restaurants, shops and services, office space and parking plus specialty entertainment such as a world-class aquarium and a new Cardinals Hall of Fame with the ballpark as the crown jewel.

After the demolition of Busch Stadium, the new ballpark will be completed, with the rest of the development following. St. Louis and its visitors have been watching the new ballpark emerge over the past several months.

Slay admits that he is fond of Busch Stadium, but his eye is on the city’s future.

“Busch Stadium is a beautiful facility and one I am personally fond of,” he says. “It is filled with great memories, but it has pretty much lost its functionality for a stadium these days. Ballpark Village is our opportunity for a $600-million-plus development in the heart of the city. Its presence will make a statement about our city — that we are progressive and on the move.”

Bottle District. Located directly north of the Edward Jones Dome and bounded by Broadway to the east, Seventh Street on the west and I-70 to the north, the Bottle District is a $290 million, 18-acre complex that will feature more than 900,000 square feet of entertainment, retail, restaurant and residential space when completed.

Targeted for completion in 2010, the district is also slated to include a Rawlings All American Grille, a Grand Prix Speedway, concert hall and a 12-lane bowling alley.

World-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind has agreed to design the project.

Libeskind is the architect of the Grand Canal Performing Arts Centre and Galleria in Dublin, Ireland, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, and the redevelopment of the Fiera Milano Fairgrounds in Milan, Italy. His design was chosen for the original master plan for Ground Zero and the World Trade Center site in 2003.

The mayor notes that Libeskind is high on St. Louis.

“He told me recently, ‘Mayor, I have seen downtowns that are exploding,’ says Slay. ‘Your downtown is exploding.’

Pinnacle Entertainment and Laclede’s Landing. Earlier this year, Pinnacle Entertainment’s proposal for a casino and related development on Laclede’s Landing was given the thumbs up by the Port Authority and the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority.

The mayor is excited about the combination of all these developments.

“The new ballpark, the Bottle District, and the Pinnacle package — these are all developments that will create an environment downtown that is attractive for visitors, those living here and those who work here every day,” he says.

The package includes a large casino, a luxury hotel, retail space, residential space and a parking garage. Slay notes that the luxury hotel will be a Four Seasons.

Old Post Office District. One of St. Louis’ most beloved landmarks, the 125-year-old Old Post Office, is at the center of a $77 million renovation and “adaptive re-use” and renovation of 2 million square feet of space in historic structures in the nine-square block referred to now as the Old Post Office District.

By early 2006, the historic Old Post Office will house the U.S. Court of Appeals Eastern District, a downtown campus of Webster University, a Pasta House Pronto restaurant, a satellite branch of the St. Louis Public Library, and the offices of the St. Louis Business Journal.

Also part of the district will be an expansion of the Mayfair Hotel, development of the Roberts Lofts in the former Board of Education Building, renovation of the Paul Brown Building into 223 apartments, development of the Arcade Building, and a number of other mixed-use residential loft projects.

Downtown, the Arch and the Riverfront. As a planner, have you ever been frustrated at how clumsy it is to get from downtown’s central corridor to the Arch?  Have you ever taken groups to the Riverfront and been embarrassed by the lack of things to do and its generally shoddy condition?

“The Arch is ranked with the Eiffel Tower as one of the most beautiful structures in the world,” says Slay, shaking his head. “But if you look between the Arch and the river, it is desolate, and it is embarrassing. It should be an asset, not a liability.”

Part of the problem is that although the Arch is set on beautiful grounds, it is nearly cut off from the rest of downtown by I-70. The Arch Connector Project wants to improve that situation, as well as the area between the Arch and the Riverfront.

Along with the Great Rivers Greenway District, the National Park Service, Metro and Downtown Now!, the mayor’s administration is working with former Sen. Jack Danforth to finalize a master plan for the Arch Grounds Connector, a three-block deck design covering I-70’s depressed lanes that separate the Arch Grounds from downtown; it is known as the “lid.” The deck would create a plaza-like environment between north and southbound Memorial Drive, with easy and safe access between the Arch grounds and downtown.

“Jack Danforth likes to describe what happens at the Arch as the best disappearing act in the city,” says Slay.  “Three million people come to see the Arch every year, and then they seem to disappear. This project allows us to connect the Arch better with downtown and also to make the area between the Arch and the Riverfront more of a destination. We want to have activities down there that give folks something to do after they visit the Arch. I think it is going to happen, especially since Jack Danforth is leading the effort.”

On Aug. 1, 2005, the mayor’s office announced that the Danforth Foundation had agreed to fund draft construction documents for the Central Riverfront as well as the Arch Grounds Connector preliminary engineering work and design competition.

A final plan and construction documents should be ready in one year.

Celebrate St. Louis. Celebrate St. Louis was formed through a partnership of Downtown Now!, the Downtown St. Louis Partnership, the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission, Fair Saint Louis and the City of St. Louis. Celebrate St. Louis’ mission is to create new events and expand existing events to bring more people downtown. Missy Slay, former executive director of the St. Louis’ local organizing committee for the NCAA Final Four and owner of Slay Event Management and Consulting, is executive director of the organization.

“St. Louis did a great job with the Final Four, and we got lots of positive national attention, so we said, ‘Let’s not let this drop,’ notes Slay. “We found that people really liked coming downtown, for Riversplash [a 2004 celebration] for example, and for many other activities. So we created Celebration St. Louis, whose purpose is to create more and better activities for visitors and residents alike.”

Mayor Slay is very excited about Celebrate St. Louis, which brought “Live on the Levee” to the Riverfront for three nights this past summer. Talent for the celebration included Macy Gray, Collective Soul and Blues Traveler — top performers on the Riverfront Overlook Stage beneath the Gateway Arch … free of charge! Performances ended with a fireworks display each evening.

“We had 60,000 people in downtown St. Louis over three nights, and it only took us a few weeks to plan it,” he says. “Next year, we want to expand it out over six weekends, make it bigger and better, and we want to collaborate with Fair St. Louis so we can be more effective.”

 

WHAT ABOUT CITY SHOPPING?

Shopping seems to be America’s favorite pastime, whether they are on the road or at home. In recent years, downtown St. Louis has lost some of its major retailers and its once bustling St. Louis Centre is bustling no more.

“We know that from other cities’ experiences, if the people come, the retail will follow,” Slay notes. “Macy’s  has agreed to keep the Famous Barr store in downtown and call it Macy’s downtown.” That’s an important step in the right direction, notes Slay, who is busy helping businesses celebrate grand openings.

“I did eight ribbon cuttings in one day recently, and we are seeing more and more development at the street level than ever before,” he says. “We want to make sure that conventioneers can be in walking proximity to shops, galleries, and restaurants.”

“A lot of stuff is going on downtown, and based upon what we are seeing, it will go on,” notes Slay with enthusiasm. “We look forward to seeing this continuing, and we hope it will go on for a long time.”

 

BEYOND THE CENTRAL CORRIDOR

As if the billions of dollars spent in the city’s central corridor weren’t enough, developers and entrepreneurs are busy in other parts of the city as well.

University City Loop Developer Joe Edwards continues to delight locals and visitors with his vision of Delmar Blvd. Beginning in the 1970s with the Blueberry Hill restaurant and nightclub, Edwards lengthened his reach from University City into the City of St. Louis with a steady stream of excellent developments such as turning around the Tivoli Theatre and opening the highly popular concert venue The Pageant. He continues to work his way into the city, with the renovation of dilapidated commercial buildings in the 6100 block of Delmar.

Edwards is one example of entrepreneurs throughout St. Louis who are impacting the arts, entertainment and hospitality industries.

“You need the ‘urban pioneers’ who have a vision of what  a neighborhood or what the city can be and who have the ability to make their vision a reality,” says Slay. “They build a lot of momentum, and show others that you can make money and have a good product at the same time.”

 

THE LAST WORD

Mayor Slay is confident in his vision, and in having the staff in place to see it through. From his office in City Hall and throughout his city, he can see, taste and hear billions of dollars of progress happening. His legacy may well be that he presided over the greatest development renaissance in St. Louis’ history. MM&E

About the author

Joe Clote

Joseph W. Clote is owner of Publishing Concepts, LLC a communications and marketing firm based in Saint Louis, Missouri. Mr. Clote is Group Publisher of MeetMed™ and Missouri Meetings & Events™ (MM&E) magazine, a quarterly publication read by thousands of meeting and event professionals, and producer of the St. Louis and Kansas City trade shows under the MM&E name. Mr. Clote has extensive sales and marketing expertise in the travel, tourism, fine art, insurance, and software development industries.