Missouri officials actively pushing for NGA to stay in city of St. Louis

Recommendation expected to be announced next month

By Gloria Lloyd

Although federal officials have not confirmed whether two St. Louis County locations are officially out of the four-way race to land the western headquarters of a spy agency, state officials are no longer trying to stay neutral on Missouri sites and are actively pushing for the agency to stay in the city.

Federal officials may announce a final decision in May on the new location of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, or NGA, Illinois officials said after making their pitch to NGA Director Robert Cardillo last week for the site to move to the Metro East near Scott Air Force Base. Cardillo is expected to announce his recommendation in March.

Half of the four finalist sites are in St. Louis County — the MetLife Building at 13045 Tesson Ferry Road and the former Chrysler plant in Fenton. There has been no official confirmation that the county sites are out of the running, but Missouri officials now believe the race is down to just two sites: St. Louis city or the Metro East, and they want the high-tech agency’s 3,500 jobs to stay in Missouri.

In an October letter to Cardillo, Missouri’s entire congressional delegation wrote that County Executive Steve Stenger removed the county bids from contention in September, when he wrote a letter throwing his “unconditional support” to the city site on the north riverfront.

Without Stenger’s support, the county sites have had no prominent backers.

The current NGA headquarters is in the Arsenal building in Soulard, a historic building nearly 200 years old. The agency plans to open the new $1.6 billion NGA West headquarters by 2021, when it could potentially double its existing workforce of 3,000. The NGA provides maps and other data — much of it classified — to the military and other federal agencies.

Illinois officials may not agree on much these days, except that they want the NGA and are making a hard push for it. Still stinging from the St. Louis Rams moving to Los Angeles, Mayor Francis Slay and seemingly every other Missouri official — including U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, Gov. Jay Nixon, U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, the Missouri Senate and Missouri’s entire Congressional delegation — are redoubling their efforts to promote the benefits of the city site to federal officials.

Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, who represents both county sites, backed a resolution passed by the Missouri Senate last week that urges Cardillo to keep the NGA in the city. The only senator in opposition was Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, who is running for Congress against the city site’s primary champion, U.S. Rep. William “Lacy” Clay, D-St. Louis.

After Clay, Stenger was the second official in the region to publicly back keeping the NGA in the city. Stenger lost support from many African-American Democrats in the 2014 county executive race, with the prominent exception of Clay.

Supporters in the city and Illinois packed open houses in October, but in comparison the joint open house in Crestwood for the Concord and Fenton sites was quiet.

Although a military realignment study recommended a decade ago that NGA be relocated to Scott Air Force Base for security reasons, Missouri lawmakers estimated that the Illinois site would double the commute times for NGA workers, who mostly live in Missouri. No clear frontrunner among the four sites has emerged as an NGA employee favorite, since that depends where the worker lives, said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, or USACE, Environmental Resources Specialist Richard Skinker.

“They always want to tell you, ‘We want it here in Mehlville or Fenton because we live right here,'” he said. “But there’s been no big movement to say, ‘1,000 of us want it in Mehlville,’ it’s just personal preference.”

Last fall, the USACE released its findings from a preliminary study that found benefits and negatives at all the sites. Each site has unique features that could be either positive or negative, but the study looked at 14 federally mandated impacts, including health and safety and the environment, Skinker told the Call at the Oct. 27 Crestwood open house.

The city will lose millions of dollars in tax revenue if it loses NGA, and all the sites would lose current property taxes if they win it. Notably, the Mehlville and Rockwood school districts would lose more than $300,000 if the county landed the agency.

Some of the properties are easier to develop than others. St. Clair County will donate the 182-acre Illinois site, which is currently undeveloped and shovel-ready except for an archeological site and a small wetland.

Some residents who live on the 100-acre city site don’t want to move and are already protesting any use of eminent domain.

The 101-acre Concord location is the only site that already has a functioning office building, which would be demolished to make way for NGA West’s top-of-the-line new campus. That counts as a negative in the study, since the demolished structure would consist of some hazardous waste and would take up landfill space.

Although the city site is the only one with residents who would have to be evicted, a challenge to the Concord site is the neighbors, some of whom came to the open house to voice their concerns about increased traffic, noise from construction, lighting and where the NGA West fence would be.

“One thing about Mehlville, you do have residential areas right adjacent to the site, so that’s a consideration,” said Skinker, who led the Concord study. “It could affect the neighbors one way or the other, depending on the layout. Depending on where the parking is — you might have lights at night.”

The Tesson Ferry NGA West campus would be fenced and surrounded with a 500-foot forested buffer, along with other modern security built to 9-11 standards, NGA spokesman Don Kerr said.

The all-concrete former Chrysler plant site at 1050 Dodge Drive in Fenton, on 167 acres along Interstate 44, once housed two now-demolished Chrysler plants with a similar number of employees as NGA. The aesthetics of the site, now “encapsulated in concrete and asphalt,” would greatly improve if NGA West opened there, USACE spokeswoman Laurie Farmer said.

“Each site is very unique,” Farmer said. “That one’s different because it is vacant, so there’s an opportunity for land transformation in a pretty visible area right next to the interstate — that’s right as you pass by on I-44. So there’s an opportunity to kind of change up the landscape at that location, visually improve it, help stabilize it by putting in a campus community at that site — those would be some of the benefits we’ve seen.”