Veterans of the St. Louis economic development scene are certainly not strangers to conversations over regionalism.
But this time, many are hoping that, in the wake of COVID-19, the discussion will go beyond just idle talk.
“It is something that I’ve focused on in the past, but it wouldn’t have had the same level of attention, I think, that it has now because the pandemic really has had this disproportionate effect on small businesses,” said Bruce Katz, founder of New Localism Associates.
That concern for small businesses isn’t limited to St. Louis. But the highly localized nature of the metro area’s economic environment has made it especially acute. How can individual business districts composed of independent storefronts and restaurants move forward to a world after the coronavirus? And is there a way to make the process less murky and uncertain?
One suggestion has been an initiative called Main Street STL, which represents part of a much larger employment blueprint, the STL 2030 Jobs Plan. Casting a broad net across 15 counties on both sides of the Mississippi, the plan, spearheaded by Katz’s firm under the aegis of Greater St. Louis, Inc., encompasses a wide array of ideas to encourage “inclusive growth” that would increase opportunities and reduce income, health and wealth disparities.
While criticizing the Gateway City for racial divisions and a “1970s style, exit-ramp economy” that has left the urban core to shrivel in favor of far-flung corporate campuses, it also highlights the area’s strengths, including its affordability and a burgeoning culture of innovative startups, from biotech to aerospace.
Among the report’s many action items, a possible Main Street STL program, if implemented, might aim to help revitalize small businesses in municipal downtowns across the region by connecting enterprises to capital, real estate or technical assistance.
While the recommendation remains a nascent idea with details to be worked out by stakeholders, Katz said that such an initiative might act as a coalition or alliance that could help the area’s neighborhood locales, village squares and town centers to communicate best practices, develop new financial products and share innovative strategic toolkits which are emerging in the post-pandemic world. The report mentions the need to reinforce strong Main Street groups in places such as St. Charles and Washington, Mo., as well as Alton, Ill.
“These kinds of efforts exist very locally,” he said. “There are Main Street efforts in many parts of St. Louis and many parts of the country, but it is rare that you have an alliance that cuts across city, suburban, exurban and rural lines.”
Adam Boudouris, board chairman for Bond County, Illinois, represents the latter kind of community.
“Just with our small-town mom-and-pop shops, it is getting harder and harder for them to stay afloat,” said Boudouris, whose county has under 20,000 people. “Over the course of the last year, it has become even more challenging for us.”
Boudouris thinks a possible Main Street STL collaboration might bear fruit over time.
“I think what they are doing is great,” he said. “Especially as the pandemic is hopefully winding down, there is going to be plenty of opportunity for business in both larger cities and smaller towns. Over the course of the last 14 months, we’ve kind of seen where our deficiencies were.”
Rachel Witt, executive director of the South Grand Community Improvement District agrees, saying it is best not to work in silos.
“If I’ve done something in my business district that can help another, we want to share best practices and just support and elevate one another because we’re more successful as a region when we all work together,” said Witt, whose CID covers dozens of enterprises spread along six blocks renowned for their diverse and fashionable eateries on St. Louis’s South Side. “That helps everyone’s business district in my opinion.”
She’s seen a lot of businesses become mired in the logistics of getting licensed, finding an accountant or knowing where space is available — issues that might be helped by a community resource group putting on seminars or workshops.
“It is the small things I feel end up making the biggest difference,” Witt said, noting that an entity might “help guide businesses with questions or struggles” as “a moderator or mediator in helping to connect who they want to talk to in city government.”
In fact, Witt has already been a part of a more informal community of local business district officials who try to stay in touch over issues of interest. Donna Poe has been a part of that effort as well.
“We have a group that communicates with each other and shares ideas,” said Poe, executive director of the Downtown Kirkwood Special Business District. “Something that would offer greater structure and greater opportunities to collaborate I think would be a good thing for individual business districts and the region.”
She’d like to see a resource for visitors to learn about each individual neighborhood, its attributes and its history.
Like Katz, she thinks COVID-19 has introduced a number of changes to how enterprises operate.
“I think the pandemic has forced busy business owners to look at how they can expand their presence and offerings on the Internet, and I don’t think that’s going away,” she said.
Those changes go beyond simply offering contactless delivery or curbside service. Katz said the shifts could be substantial.
“The rise of remote work may actually work in favor of some Main Streets,” he said. “It gets back to this question of which businesses will occupy Main Street after the pandemic. Will it be traditional retail, or will there be more coworking spaces? I think we’re going to see a different mix.”
Randy Schilling, owner of OPO Startups, a St. Charles coworking space, might agree.
“Dynamics have changed quite a bit in terms of remote workers and where people work,” he said. “What does the recovery look like?”
Schilling, who is also president of his municipality’s special business district, said that in pre-COVID days, some St. Charles businesses didn’t even have websites or a way to sell online. Today, innovation is essential and communication over ideas could help enterprises succeed.
“One strategy might fit an area that may be more edgy, more college town-oriented,” he said. “If you look at [St. Louis’s] Delmar Loop, it is more entertainment. That’s one strategy. Another area may choose to be more family friendly. Another might be catering more to the local workforce. Another strategy would be to focus on tourism.”
“You can have more than one strategy but in terms of how you execute on those, they are very similar,” he added.
He stressed the four-pronged approach of the national organization Main Street America, which emphasizes organization, promotion, design and economic vitality.
“It is following that framework and then applying it to a particular strategy,” he said.
Rachelle L’Ecuyer, executive director of the eclectic Delmar Loop district Schilling mentioned, said she hopes a coordination group of some kind gets off the ground.
“I think it would be amazing if they could do that,” she said. “We really need a one-stop-shop for resources to be funneled through for our businesses on Main Street.”
She noted that many areas saw longstanding problems brought into stark relief by the coronavirus situation.
“It is just that when we’re not in a crisis mode, we’re really functioning on a higher umbrella level to support a business district, not looking necessarily as closely at individual businesses,” she said. “But when the pandemic hit, that really changed my focus and I think changed other business district focuses as well. We want everyone to get through this and be intact when we’re able to fully reopen. Having an organization that would help with resources would, I think, take us all to the next level.”
Whether Main Street STL ever gets beyond the proposal stage, or what it might look like if it does, remains anyone’s guess, but Katz feels that the 20th largest metropolitan area in the United States, comprising 2.8 million people, should consider the power of approaching problems as a group rather than reinventing the wheel for every issue.
“If you actually come together, it is a two plus two equals five effect,” he said. “I think that’s what this is about.”
Like this article? Get more just like this sent directly to your inbox! Sign up for our weekly newsletter here.