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Fed governor sees East St. Louis as good example


By Patrick L. Thimangu Of The Post-Dispatch 10/23/2002 05:41 AM

Federal Reserve governor Mark W. Olson said Tuesday that East St. Louis can serve as a good example of how banks, neighborhoods, nonprofit agencies and individuals can unite to save impoverished cities.

Olson spoke at an urban revitalization conference organized by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The two-day event at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center attracted about 130 people, mostly bankers, executives and representatives of nonprofit community groups from across the nation.

The conference, which ends today, was scheduled in East St. Louis because it provides a clear picture of an American urban area that has suffered terrible economic blight and is struggling to recover, said Glenda Wilson, St. Louis Fed community affairs officer. Also, the University of Illinois has been helping the city improve its economy through a development program, the East St. Louis Action Research Project.

Olson said East St. Louis was once an "All-American City" and a regional economic engine; now it is a town marked by fiscal, social and physical decay. Between 1970 and 2000, the city lost 55 percent of its population, and manufacturing -- its main source of employment -- declined 67 percent between 1970 and 1999.

Still, East St. Louis has been making big strides in recent years, Olson said. Homeownership, for example, has risen steadily there since 1970.

"Another trend is revealed by the dramatic increase in the educational level of its residents," Olson said. "The number of residents with some college credits or an associate degree has nearly tripled since 1970."

In large part, East St. Louis' recent revitalization comes from efforts by community and development groups, such as the Emerson Park Development Corp., Olson said.

Emerson Park Development spearheaded the Parsons Place residential development in the Emerson Park neighborhood. The project involved construction of 174 apartments with a mix of public and private funding.

Collaboration between the city and the University of Illinois shows urban areas can gain from partnering with educational institutions, Olson said. The university, through its East St. Louis Action Research Project, was instrumental in ensuring the MetroLink light-rail system extended to East St. Louis, Olson said.

Other speakers at the conference emphasized the need for businesses, especially banks, to get more involved in revitalizing the cities in which they operate.

In East St. Louis, for example, several banks have banded together to create affordable home improvement financing in blighted neighborhoods, even for people with poor credit histories, said Loura Gilbert, community reinvestment officer at Commerce Bank.

The programs lend a maximum of $25,000 to households whose annual incomes do not exceed $119,000 -- or 150 percent of the statewide household median income, Gilbert said.

Other financial institutions have for years belonged to Metro East Lenders Group, which provides loans to businesses in the East St. Louis area.

Reporter Patrick L. Thimangu
E-mail: pthimangu@post-dispatch.com
Phone: 314-340-8320

Last modified: 22 October 2002, Deanna Koenigs