Economic climate for business investment vital
Alan J. Dixon of Belleville has lived close to East St. Louis and its problems all of his life as he progressed through a series of state offices to the U.S. Senate, and he has seen East St. Louis decline with the loss of smokestack industry. He sees the restoration of an economic climate that can attract private sector businesses as the most important single thing to help the city and its people.
"Even if one would assume that East St. Louis has the most productive government climate given its situation -- and I don't assume that, incidentally -- you still couldn't make the grade on the tax base it has," he said. "You need an improvement in the level of government services, but beyond that you need a support system that works," and he said there is none. "I would like to see us try to find methods through enterprise zones and other avenues to bring private sector investments back to East St. Louis.
"You know, to the extent that I've been able to do that, for instance, on the Armed Services Committee, we've done some things for one business that has a defense contract. That sort of thing is something we could do that could help significantly.
"Obviously if we could get waterfront development in final shape in such a way that it would be a significant tourism attraction, like the Arch is across the river ... the Arch has really worked. Tens of millions of people have come to St. Louis for no other reason than to visit the Arch, and as a consequence of that you've seen this remarkable renaissance, this recovery of a downtown section of St. Louis," he continued.
"Obviously the ball park had part to do with it, and other things, but you can see when you get some kind of an anchor, it's almost like a shopping center, you get a good anchor and other stores will follow. I think that's what we need in East St. Louis. If it has that and then we bad some really fine housing along the water, and some restaurants, bars, theaters, other things, I think that would be a beginning," he said.
On riverboat gambling, he said be hated to see gambling promoted, and did not see it as a good solution, but "maybe some riverboat gambling there will bring in some people, will help a
"I live on the Hill now, but when I first came to Washington I lived in a condominium in what they call Crystal Gateway Condominiums, in Crystal City, across the Potomac, by the National Airport. There had been nothing but junkyards there for old abandoned automobiles. There was a brick yard there and a sand place where they dug the sand for highway construction and other uses, and a trashy motel with short-term services; just all that kind of stuff.
"A fellow by the name of Charles E. Smith took that Potomac waterfront and redeveloped it with hotels and restaurants and bars and theaters and an underground shopping center and these condos and other things and now literally he has gone all the way to the end of that section, to the 14th Street Marriott, there at the bridge, and torn that down to build new structures.
"The whole thing is an absolutely renovated area that was nothing but a slum. Obviously the riverfront on the East Side of the (Mississippi) River presents the same opportunities. We see that all along the river here - we see it not only by Arlington in Crystal City but in Washington where they've taken those old warehouses and put in what now amount to million-dollar apartments. It wouldn't be for those prices, but with the
immediate access to St. Louis by the bridges, that area (in East St. Louis) could be a tremendous area for profoundly important renovation with pretty expensive housing" and the rest. "Then," be said, "if we could get some private sector "businesses of other types into the community," he could see how the good economic effects could spread across the city from the river.
Asked how all this might come about, be said be thinks there has to be private sector involvement by somebody like Charles E. Smith. In Washington, there are several "big shooters" who do that sort of thing. "When I came to Washington 10 years ago, Pennsylvania Avenue was a junk street; now it's gorgeous," and there are other sections in Arlington that have been rebuilt by these big investors. There's that kind of opportunity for the east side of the river, he said, if you can find the right kind of entrepreneurs.
"Government needs to play its role as well. The problem we have now with the ... federal budget is such that there isn't a lot that you can do, but don't forget light rail is functioning; light rail is coming from the airport right into East St. Louis and on from East St. Louis to Belleville, O'Fallon and Scott Air Force Base, believe it or not. So you have the transport system in place. You just have a lot of things that'd make it work..."
Dixon is working with the congressional delegation for an expansion of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial to the East St. Louis riverfront and the development of a major ethnic cultures' museum there as a tourist attraction. It could be the first anchor for riverfront development.
Dixon said that with the East St. Louis government's recent record, he'd like to see the state involved in the development. He recalled a Pete Fox with the old Department of Business and Economic Development -now called the Department of Business and Community Affairs - who recently was putting together a bond issue for a stadium for a ballpark in Milwaukee. There are lots of people who could make it work, he said.
Dixon said he is supporting several bills, including one by Sen. Paul Simon, to help provide job training that could benefit East St. Louis; that could help make sure that the unemployed citizens could participate in a restored economy. He said that the junior college could and should be providing basic educational support systems for any emerging job market.
Dixon also supports joint civilian-military use at Scott Air Force Base and this could help provide job opportunities for East St. Louis.
Regarding the city's housing stock, be said congress has passed a new housing bill supported by Jack Kemp, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), with a "very definite tilt toward renovation of existing housing stock." It particularly would focus on houses recaptured by the government for failure to meet commitments by owners and occupiers of those houses all over America, he said. Sylvia Thompson, a very well-qualified black member of Dixon's staff and his specialist on urban housing, said the bill definitely could fit East St. Louis' situation. Renovation keeps buildings on tax rolls, as opposed to public housing. Kemp even has proposed that selected public housing be sold to its occupants to get them back on the rolls, provide pride of ownership and reduce the federal government's obligations.
Dixon said he would talk with Kemp about making a personal trip to look into the housing situation in East St. Louis, and perhaps could accompany him to the city.