‘Wake-up call’: St. Louis faces dimming prospects absent new efforts to draw population | Politics







St. Louis dropped out of the top 20 metropolitan areas in the country

A lone car drives down Collinsville Road as the sunset glows red outlining the St. Louis skyline on Wednesday, March 2, 2022, as photographed from Monks Mound in Collinsville, Illinois. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com




ST. LOUIS — Mike Welch grew up in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood. Eight years ago, he left St. Louis, and he doesn’t ever plan to move back.

“The city, it’s just so stagnant,” said Welch, 36, who now works in safety training for United Airlines. “There’s no diversity.”

When he comes back to visit family, he sees that his old neighborhood has indeed changed with the development of the Grove commercial district along Manchester Avenue. But, he says, much of St. Louis still hasn’t evolved.

One of about 27,000 Black residents who left St. Louis over the last decade, Welch said often felt unwelcome in his own city. He doesn’t want to criticize the police — he has family who are in law enforcement in the region — but says getting hassled by suspicious officers when he was growing up didn’t help.

“Even if you wasn’t doing nothing, they was messing with us, and I knew when I got older, I wanted to get away from that,” Welch said. “I wasn’t the type of guy who was running the streets or nothing like that.” 

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Welch’s departure is like thousands of others in the city. Growth in St. Louis’s central corridor has failed to offset the exodus elsewhere in the urban core. Black St. Louisans, especially, have left in droves, most quitting north St. Louis, which over the last decade continued to slide as investment waned and people moved to the suburbs or other cities.

The region’s namesake city, with a population of just 301,578 in the 2020 Census, is dragging down overall growth. Its loss of nearly 18,000 people over the last decade was the most among the metro area’s 15 counties, offsetting a chunk of the nearly 45,000 new residents in suburban St. Charles County. The Metro East — the eight Illinois counties that are part of the metro area — also lost about 21,000 people, while St. Louis County, the region’s largest county, was mostly flat, remaining just above 1 million residents. 







St. Louis dropped out of the top 20 metropolitan areas in the country

Despite the beautiful weather boasting a high of 82 degrees, Kiener Park Plaza was empty on Wednesday, March 2, 2022. The city of St. Louis lost nearly 18,000 residents in the 2020 Census. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.




The bottom line is that while the St. Louis region did add people over the last decade, the growth was anemic: 1.2% overall, or just 32,500 people, to 2.8 million. St. Louis, which dropped out of the top 20 metro areas for the first time, saw slower growth, on a percentage basis, than all but three of the nation’s 50 largest metro areas: Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Hartford, Connecticut. 

That’s a red flag for leaders of a region that was once one of the country’s major cities. Jason Hall, CEO of Greater St. Louis Inc., goes as far as to call it an “existential threat” to the city, one that will decrease the region’s ability to attract talent and capital or reinvest in infrastructure and cultural amenities. 







Jason Hall

Jason Hall


“We have to recognize growth has to be a top civic priority,” Hall said. “Those census data should be the wake-up call because it is clear, we know, if nothing changes, we will fall from 21 closer to 30. This is a decade where our accumulated size advantages from the turn of the last century start to collapse relative to the high-growth peers underneath us. This is a critical, critical decade.” 

In the last decade, it has already fallen behind fast-growing metro areas such as Denver and Tampa Bay. In the most recent census, Baltimore surpassed the St. Louis area’s population. And at current rates of growth, the metro areas anchored by Orlando, Charlotte and San Antonio are poised to soon surpass it.  

“They have the one thing St. Louis doesn’t have, and that’s a growing Latino population,” said St. Louis University sociologist Ness Sandoval.







St. Louis University professor Ness Sandoval

Ness Sandoval, St. Louis University professor and co-director of public and social policy. Photo courtesy of Ness Sandoval


Much of the growth in fast-growing regions is driven by the Latino population there, which also tends to be younger, lifting birth rates.

By contrast, St. Louis’ birth rate is declining, Sandoval noted, and its very small Latino community makes it an outlier among major metropolitan regions. It will take an “intentional” marketing and attraction effort to lure more Latino immigrants and second- or third-generation Latinos to the region, Sandoval said. But Missouri politics make the state seem like a place where Latinos aren’t welcome, he said.

St. Louis needs to change its image, he said, as other cities in conservative states have done.

“I’m still positive on St. Louis,” Sandoval said. “It’s got great bones. It’s got good housing. But it has to become younger and it has to become more diverse. And it’s got about 20 years to do it. Everybody’s fighting for population right now.”

Midwestern peers

While demographic trends in recent decades have favored the South and West, often at the expense of the Midwest, the slow growth here can’t just be chalked up to immutable migratory and birth rate patterns.

Kansas City, on the other side of Missouri, grew by 9% over the last decade, above the national growth rate of 7.4%. Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio, grew by around 12% and Cincinnati by 5.6%. Even Detroit, long cast as a hollowed-out, pitiable Rust Belt metropolis, grew by 2.2% over the last decade.







Comparing metro areas

That’s all the more evidence, Hall said, that St. Louis needs to “stop with the excuses” and figure out what those other Midwestern cities are doing to grow. 

“They’re growing because they’re figuring out how to compete as one metro,” he said. 

Greater St. Louis Inc., in its second year, was formed in part from a recognition by the business community that St. Louis’ old civic infrastructure wasn’t working.

It has already launched a number of new initiatives in recent years.

The STLMade campaign, a regional marketing initiative, is aimed not just at those looking at moving to St. Louis but convincing its own residents, many of whom have a negative perception of the city and its prospects, to stay. It is putting resources into growing other strategic industry clusters, such as advanced manufacturing and geospatial technology. It’s helping build support for projects like the Brickline pedestrian and bicycle thoroughfare that other cities have already built.

And it preaches equity and inclusivity, as do new economic plans in the city of St. Louis. The city’s racial segregation is a liability; accepting that fact and working to repair it is essential.

“To compete for that talent you have to be seen as a place that is abundant with opportunity and no matter who you are you have access to that opportunity,” Hall said. 

Getting the message out that St. Louis is working to become more inclusive and tamp down perceptions about its crime problem is important, said Jerry Schlichter, a prominent attorney and civic leader who founded and chairs Arch Grants, a startup fund that draws entrepreneurs to St. Louis.







Jerry Schlichter

Jerry Schlichter


“We need a very robust story to be told about St. Louis in the national media,” he said. “Our narrative has been written for us often by crime statistics.”

Schlichter was among a group of business leaders who recently announced a donation — reportedly over $1 million — to support efforts by the International Institute of St. Louis to resettle Afghan refugees.

It’s an example of the urgency regional leaders are placing on population growth, without which they say St. Louis will continue to struggle both competitively for jobs and capital but also with social issues such as crime and vacancy.







Streets of St. Charles adds new phase of additional apartments

The next phase of the Streets of St. Charles will contain 245 apartments, adding to existing residential, retail, restaurants and entertainment venues in the shopping district on Fifth Street in St. Charles, photographed on Thursday, March 3, 2022. The buildings are located just south of Interstate 70. St. Charles County gained nearly 45,000 residents in the 2020 Census. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com




The money is earmarked to help the institute co-sign on leases in order to open up more rental stock, particularly for large refugee families. It will also fund a digital Afghan newspaper, establish an Afghan Chamber of Commerce and purchase iPads for new arrivals. The extra services are aimed at boosting the region’s image as a good place for Afghans settled elsewhere in the country to come and start a new life, similar to what happened with the Bosnian refugees drawn here in the 1990s.

“There’s nothing remotely like this anywhere in the United States,” Schlichter said. “And that’s the goal to stand out as the city that’s the most welcoming and supportive.”

There’s a good chance the effort could resonate among Afghan refugees, said Arrey Obenson, CEO of the International Institute, which has already helped welcome about 650 Afghans here, about 100 of whom still need permanent housing. He said the organization has the capacity to settle as many as 800 more in the coming months. 

The Afghan refugee crisis has helped galvanize the region’s resettlement infrastructure, bringing nonprofits together and reinvigorating them following the Trump administration’s policy of slashing the number of refugees the U.S. accepted. But Obenson said the momentum should not stop with Afghan refugees. 







Arrey Obenson

Arrey Obenson


“We can grow the population of St. Louis,” he said. “The way we’re going to do it is, I’m appealing to the community to not just see this as a resettlement effort, but to work with us in building capacity to attract immigrants from all over the United States to come to St. Louis. Help us build a workforce pipeline. Help us build a multicultural center here.”

Hall sees some evidence that regional collaboration is improving. He said most other regional leaders recognize the need to reinvigorate the urban core, even if they lead suburban counties.

And he pointed to the application for a new federal Build Back Better grant worth up to $100 million for an advanced manufacturing center in north St. Louis near Ranken Technical College, for which St. Louis is one of 60 finalists for 20 to 30 such grants. When there’s that much money on the line, the “daggers can come out,” he said, but regional leaders largely rallied behind the application to put it in the city’s struggling north side.

Still, it will take big wins, like attracting an international flight to Germany last year, and little ones, consistently over time to change the narrative and draw new people.

“This is long-term work,” Hall said. “If anybody tells you there’s a silver bullet, they’re lying.”


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