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If you live in St. Louis County, I’ll bet you didn’t know how lucky you are. And if you don’t live there, you’d want to after listening to the County’s biggest booster, County Executive Charlie Dooley. Speaking at the August meeting of West County Democrats, Dooley emphasized how important this county is to the state. Thirty-three percent of the state’s revenue is generated here. More than 500,000 jobs are here.

It’s important that the biggest economic engine in the state be well run. And it is.

  • First, St. Louis County is the only county in the state with a Triple A bond rating. In fact, it’s one of perhaps fifteen counties in the nation so rated.
  • Second, the County has more police on the streets now than ever before, and the St. Louis County Police are TriArc accredited. What that means is that the police department itself is accredited; the police academy is accredited; and the communications sector of the department is accredited. Only seven police departments in the country have TriArc accreditation–that’s out of 14,000 police departments.
  • Third, the St. Louis County jail system is the only one in the state that is accredited. Naturally, we don’t long to incarcerate people, but when it’s necessary, this county does so professionally.
  • Fourth, the county’s Health Department is the only one in the region that actually had a plan for dealing for the H1N1 virus and implemented its plan. The last time the Health Department was examined by accrediting authorities, it received 100 percent scores in all ten rating categories.

Who knew there were so many accrediting authorities associated with county governments–or that STL County stood out like it does?

Still, if you can believe it, life isn’t perfect in St. Louis County. Dooley says he’s working on it, though. He claims bragging rights for the improvements on I-64–a half billion dollar road project finished in less than two years and under budget. Anybody who lives in this area remembers the dire predictions of terminal road jam and damage to local businesses. In the event, though, nobody died of starvation sitting on a Ladue Road that had morphed into a parking lot. The process was merely inconvenient. The upside is that it was two years of hassle instead of seven. AND, it cost $500 million instead of a billion. Dooley’s proud that the County Council pushed the project.

And he’s pleased as punch that the County Council successfully pushed for a second vote to get a sales tax increase to fund our public transit. The second time around, that proposition got 62 percent.

Dooley has two more big projects in mind. I’ve got objections to them. Okay, I’ll admit I believed the naysayers about how bolloxed up the I-64 construction would be, but I did know the renovations needed to happen. And of course we need better public transit. For true. But I don’t think the other two projects Dooley wants should happen. Especially the first one. He wants to open up 3,000 acres of land on the Missouri river floodplain for development.

He presents his case with a compelling example by arguing that MasterCharge would not have left fifteen years ago if it could have found appropriate space to expand in the County.

Dooley doesn’t mention “floodplain”, you’ll notice, but talks instead about using stimulus money to extend Highway 141 through that area. The roadwork, in itself, is an awful idea. A Missouri Coalition for the Environment member who lives on land next to those wetlands says:

  

Exactly 1.7 miles of bottleneck occurs during morning and afternoon rush hours along Woods Mill Road between Olive and Ladue. About 20 hours a day, there’s no congestion; in summer and on weekends, even less. But, just like every other place in the metro area, rush hour is definitely congested, but only for 10 or 15 minutes of slow up, because it’s only a short stretch of road.  Building a new 6-lane expressway two miles long for relieving Woods Mill congestion is the equivalent of moving to Arizona when you catch a cold. The state very wisely never funded it, because it couldn’t be justified as a priority, but it wasn’t quite dead. Now, with the stimulus money on the table, our state and county governments are thrilled to ignore the enormous financial and environmental costs, grab those federal millions, and blast off with this irresponsible project. It’s just shameful.

But would the expanded highway be worth doing if it gave another “MasterCharge” a place to locate?

No.

Look, nobody wants to drive a major employer like MasterCharge out of town, but what Dooley fails to mention is how the last development of the floodplain in St. Louis County turned out. Mills Mall was built. With only two anchors–Marshalls and Burlington Coat Factory–it has dozens of shops … and few customers. Acres of mostly unoccupied parking spaces that need to be leveed against floods have supplanted wildlife habitat and natural flood control.

An audience member at Dooley’s speech asked what assurance he could give that the project wouldn’t just be turned into big box land. Dooley said:

“We want to showcase Creve Coeur Lake Park. We want to showcase that. Our park is just as beautiful as any park in the world. And how we do it, enhance it, is going to be key to moving it forward. So just anything being there won’t do. It has to work and enhance what we already have there.”

Not exactly an iron clad guarantee, is it? But even if we had it iron clad that the wetlands would not end up sitting under more Chevys, QuikTrips, and Home Depots, so what? St. Louis County may lack undeveloped land, but it has plenty of unoccupied buildings. We have no business leaving our failures to crumble while we build new businesses on a floodplain.

If we’re going to destroy our last vestige of natural flood protection in the County, why not at least use some of the richest land on the continent for farming? People always need to eat, and locally grown produce is, to return to the theme of vision, the wave of the future.

Dooley and the County Council get credit for wanting to create jobs. I get that and I respect that. Unfortunately, he and they are still living in the last century, relying on the old model of extract, waste and consume, instead of thinking sustainable.

That same outdated mode of thinking characterizes the other project Dooley is pushing. Much as he wants businesses on that floodplain, that’s a minor vision as far as he’s concerned. What he’s really high about is the China Hub. St. Louis honchos and, in fact, Missouri legislative bigwigs (both senators and the governor) have traveled to China trying to lure Chinese trade to Lambert “International” Airport–to make the airport’s name no shameless exaggeration for the first time. Until now, the Chinese have exported to our coasts. But it would be cheaper for them, for goods that are destined to be sold in the middle of the country, if they shipped those goods to … the middle of the country. And that doesn’t mean Chicago, where planes routinely circle the airport for an hour waiting to land, wasting fuel and time. Lambert, located centrally, is only half used. It’s dying for the business.

Dooley points out that when St. Louis hosted the World’s Fair in 1904, it
was the fourth largest city in the country. We have fallen on hard times. We haven’t grown in the last forty years. The China Hub, according to Dooley, could put us back in the big time. China could send us its stuff and we could put beef on the return trip to a nation literally hungry for steaks.

I guess I’ll sound all Grinchy about it if I point out that wasting jet fuel in these times of impending climate change to send cheap, often contaminated, plastic goods halfway around the planet does not strike me as visionary. How many Chinese American flags do we really need? And as for sending beef to the Chinese, the planet is already groaning under the load of methane that cattle emit. Let’s not create a new billion people strong market.

As with the floodplain scheme, Dooley’s motives in securing the China Hub for St. Louis are understandable. He wants jobs. No doubt many of his constituents would side with his vision over mine. In these hard times, jobs trump just about anything.

But in the next few years, Mother Nature is going to swat humans upside the head for their stubborn insistence on ignoring her. Then a different way of life will happen or we as a species will disappear. A visionary leader would get that.

Charlie Dooley is  a talented politician and a competent administrator, who knows how to put his point of view across. Now if he would alter his vision, looking to the actual future we face, and use his gifts getting people to work toward sustainability, he could be the leader we need.