This headline accompanied Washington Post nationally-syndicated columnist Neal Peirce’s column on St. Louis, following the completion of our BioBelt Strategy in 2000. Then in 2019, economists from the Brookings Institution noted that “To succeed in the global economy, cities must invest in what makes them unique.”
My now 40+ year path as a private sector “civic entrepreneur” has led me from Atlanta, the “City Too Busy to Hate”; to 4-years in the Carter Administration sub-cabinet at HUD; to the Mile High City of Denver as founding CEO of The Downtown Denver Partnership, Denver Civic Ventures, Inc. and the Greater Denver Corporation; then on to 18 years heading the St. Louis Regional Chamber & Growth Association, and since 2012, as CEO of Community Development Ventures, Inc., an economic and entrepreneurial development advisory firm.
In Atlanta, that uniqueness was a new international airport and its nationally-distinct African-American business and educational roots.
Fourteen years leading Denver’s center city and regional economic development in overcoming the Mile High City’s “boom/bust economy” and the 1980s Energy Bust—it took support of the bold vision of Mayor Federico Peña to “Imagine a Great City” by creating a vibrant mixed-use center city through a combination of historic preservation and revitalizing its formerly abandoned railyards—as well as planning, financing and building the new Denver International Airport.
At the depths of that downturn in 1987, Forbes Magazine published an article on Denver’s Energy Bust entitled, “Rocky Mountain Low: You Can’t Fall Off the Floor.” Building DIA, distinctive placemaking and innovation leading to a revitalized central city, and generating over 240,000 net new jobs lead to a 1993 Time Magazine cover story, “Boom Time in The Rockies.”
After being recruited to St. Louis in 1994 to lead the now 182-year old Regional Chamber & Growth Association (RCGA), the organization which had funded Charles Lindbergh’s historic “Spirit of St. Louis” Trans-Atlantic flight—the challenge was how to reignite that 1927 spirit of exploration with a new round of innovation and entrepreneurship, to combine with St. Louis’ long-established base of Fortune HQ companies.
Utilizing the methodologies of Michael Porter at Harvard’s “Clusters and the New Economics of Competition”—they identified FinTech, Advanced Manufacturing, Transportation/Logistics/Distribution, and Plant and Life Sciences—as St. Louis’ distinctive industry clusters for the future. Since 2000, the latter sector has become St. Louis’ distinctive Bio Belt: Center of Plant & Life Sciences, the region’s biotech niche and now leads the nation in biotech startups.
In 2019, with the recent winning of the new $1.75 billion National Geospatial-Intelligence HQ, St. Louis now sets its sights on becoming a Global Geospatial-Intelligence Hub—again, unique to St. Louis.