Rise Partners With Invest STL to Improve St. Louis Neighborhoods

Invest STL has engaged Rise to serve as its consultant to support the initial round of grants issued by Invest STL.

Sponsored by the St. Louis Community Foundation, Invest STL is a regional initiative that aligns investment, technical assistance, and community organizations to build healthy neighborhoods that are thriving, resilient, and livable for everyone. Invest STL would not be possible without the support of numerous individuals, institutions, funders, and investors.

Through the generosity of partners and supporters, Invest STL recently selected the West End neighborhood and neighborhoods around the Jefferson – Gravois corridors as recipients to receive multi-year investment and technical assistance to drive equitable neighborhood revitalization.

To stay updated with information on Invest STL click here.

The following narrative describes the importance of this initiative in the St. Louis region:

Why Do Neighborhoods Matter To St. Louis?

A successful city—no matter its size, location or history— succeeds in three dimensions:

  1. By providing economic growth and employment opportunities for its residents.
  2. By offering a high quality of life in neighborhoods that attract and hold resident workers and civic leaders because they are pleasant places to live and raise children.
  3. By ensuring equality of opportunity, so that those from traditionally disadvantaged groups and immigrants can join the economic mainstream.

Embedded in this profile of success is a strong connection between quality of life and economic strength, and neighborhoods are this connection. Strong and attractive neighborhoods play an essential role both in the wellbeing of St. Louis residents and to the overall economic health of the metropolitan area by attracting and retaining residents, and by helping more residents contribute to the region’s economic vitality.

Yet, those concerned with neighborhood improvement and those focused on the region’s economy have been working in separate silos.  St. Louis has a great opportunity to connect the two with a carefully crafted neighborhood improvement strategy; one based on all of the qualities of success cited above.

Economic Vitality & Quality Of Life

Cities and regions are now competing for businesses and workers in a global marketplace and there is a growing category of workers who are inter-city mobile.  The most important reason that workers move to a metropolitan area or choose to stay in it is whether there are good jobs—jobs that are rewarding and that pay well.  Although there is a slice of young people—Richard Florida’s Creative Class—who will move to a hot city because they want to live there and will take the risk of finding a job after they move; more often, workers move to cities like St. Louis when they find a job or have a solid job prospect.   So, job growth is the number one driver of economic growth in cities.  Organizations like the St. Louis Regional Chamber play the role of helping to create and retain jobs.

Yet, quality of life in neighborhoods also influences workers’ decisions to locate in a metro area.  In St. Louis and other cities like it, the quality of life in neighborhoods is important to the overall health of the regional economy in at least two ways.  First, workers in a segment of the workforce–intercity mobile knowledge workers—are choosing employment in places where jobs are available and where high quality of life neighborhoods exist.  Having such neighborhoods is critically important for older industrial cities like St. Louis, which compete for these knowledge workers. These workers want density, excitement, cool places—the kind of area exemplified by the Central West End, U City Loop and parts of Downtown.

Second, a growing body of academic literature indicates that metro areas with a relatively small gap between the haves and have-nots have stronger economies than those that have a wide gap[1].  In other words, where more people are contributing to the local economy, the economy is healthier because it is not supporting a large dependent population.  Improvement of neighborhood life in low-income areas can be an important strategy to reducing the dependent populations in a metro area, thereby improving the opportunities for these city residents.

Although an economist might describe neighborhoods as attracting and holding workers, the people living in city neighborhoods are more than just labor for the economy.  They are often the creative and civic leaders of their neighborhoods and the metro region, providing the imagination, energy, determination, and grit to improve their neighborhoods, the city, and the metro area.  They are also often the entrepreneurs who are starting new businesses of many kinds.  No city can thrive without this dynamic energy.

For thirty years or more cities have had neighborhood improvement efforts underway under the label “community development.”  In St. Louis the economic growth specialists have seen community development as a separate endeavor with little relevance to growing the economy.  In part, this is because community development in St. Louis has largely been limited to using income-targeted federal funds to produce affordable housing for the past 30 years.  This approach has value—it provides safe and sanitary housing to people who need it, and in some cases, affordable housing has stimulated neighborhood improvement.  However, a large part of the challenge of connecting neighborhood improvement to economic growth is broadening the community development agenda and making the connection between neighborhood quality and economic growth.  Those working on community development need to take fresh approaches and those working on economic development need to see the value in improving neighborhood quality to economic growth.

[1] See Manuel Pastor and Chris Benner, “Been Down So Long:  Weak-Market Cities and Regional Equity,” in Richard M. McGhee and Jennifer Vey, Retooling for Growth:  Building a 21st Century Economy in America’s Older Industrial Cities, Washington, DC:  The Brookings Institution, 2008, pp. 89-118.

St. Louis: Looking Forward

What should St. Louis be doing differently?

First, city government and others working in community development need to broaden their ambition beyond affordable housing and those efforts aimed at the low-income population to also focus on strengthening a broader range of neighborhoods.

Second, the importance of quality of life in neighborhoods and the strategies and methods for strengthening the quality of life need to be an element of regional growth planning and execution, a subject that should be on the agenda of the Regional Chamber.

Third, a new neighborhood improvement strategy needs to be formulated based on a new understanding that neighborhoods get better by working from strength—overcoming blight by spreading nearby bright.  For example, what’s needed to spread the remarkable strength of the Central West End north to Page Avenue, creating a thriving mixed-income neighborhood north of Delmar?  Or, what has to happen to bring the strength of Lafayette Square south to Gravois?

Fourth, encouragement of and support for strong neighborhood groups need to come from all sectors.  People who love their neighborhoods and work together to keep them safe, clean, fun to live in, and with improving schools are crucial to the long-term well-being of the city.

These actions require a change of thinking and action but are achievable and necessary to help the St. Louis area thrive.

Invest STL believes in the things St. Louis needs to be doing differently and that we will have a greater impact in improving our neighborhoods the more we invest together. By coordinating loan and philanthropic funding pools with technical assistance and capacity building, growing the number of strong communities increasingly will be in our future.