There is little question that we are living through a trying time right now in America. Even before the pandemic hit, further exacerbating the economic divide between economically advantaged and disadvantaged Americans, the disparities were already well-documented.
This was particularly true in St. Louis, which Bruce Katz, a venerated economic strategist, describes as “possibly the most studied and planned city in the U.S.” Many studies have detailed, sometimes painfully, the extent of one of the worst racial wealth gaps in the nation, that of the St. Louis metropolitan area.
Against this backdrop, in 2018, the City of St. Louis decided to launch the St. Louis Equitable Economic Development Framework. The goal was to tackle racial inequity head-on, and not simply document the problem and tepidly offer half-solutions.
But what makes this document more valuable than the others that came before it?
First, we hired some of the best thinkers in the country on the issue of racial economic inequity. Next, we worked closely with the community as well as civic and business leaders to develop a set of strategic action items to address these challenges. Through countless meetings with residents, workers and students, together with staff at the city’s economic development agency, and the St. Louis Development Corporation (SLDC), a pretty stalwart set of strategies and action items came to fruition that have the potential to finally land a solid punch against the enemy of inequity. We are proud of the innovative ideas that came out of this process, including:
- Helping minority-owned mom and pop retailers compete in an online world through the development of a logistics hub to process and deliver orders and reach a broader base of customers through online marketing;
- Providing programming and training to assist in the succession planning of small to mid-size manufacturers to aid in the transfer of ownership from retiring owners to a more equitable and broad-based ownership by employees;
- Creating a tailored capital strategy for Minority/Women-owned Business Enterprises (MWBE) to increase working capital lending and direct equity investment via an Opportunity Zone Fund;
- Opening doors for minority residents in the growing Geospatial and Software Tech space by supporting the development and implementation of K-12 geospatial curriculum and internship models and rolling out a skills-based hiring framework based on these newly developed models to make these jobs accessible to those without a bachelor’s degree;
We think that these and other ideas that came out of this planning process add to the nationwide progress around economic and community development, however, at the end of the day, we found that the area where the most innovation and progress is needed is in the implementation of such ideas. A primary reason for this is that eventually, the high-powered consultants tasked with generating ideas move on, and the ideas they leave with us on paper are only as valuable as what we as a community are able to implement.
In this light, we think that it is imperative that St. Louis takes an approach of linking, leveraging, and aligning our existing assets in order to transition and reinvigorate them. What does that mean? It means utilizing the resources and existing assets in the community, those in the minority communities, and those elsewhere, whether they be corporate, municipal, philanthropic or other, and joining them together to create something new and better out of those existing assets.
This collaboration must be more than some kind of helicopter drop of resources into disadvantaged communities and calling it a day. Rather, what I am referring to starts with building a foundation of trust in an intentional effort to discover how outside wealth can be linked with existing value and assets within the affected communities in a way that will create new bonds.
Ultimately, I believe this is what an equitable approach to economic development is all about. In an understanding and acceptance of our shared humanity, those of us who have been blessed with privilege must help revitalize our disadvantaged communities.
To be certain, there is an aspect of risk that comes with linking our community assets with other people. When we do, we lose some degree of control over how our assets will be used and what they will become. On the flip side, there is also risk in accepting outside resources, that those providing them will exact harsh returns on their investment. And this is why what is needed now more than ever is better ways of building trust. Starting with open communication, doing what we say, and saying what we will do.
The Equitable Economic Development Framework in St. Louis is an attempt at saying what we can do; It is a roadmap that we hope will lead to a more prosperous and equitable future for all St. Louisans.