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Peirce Report offered no unique solutions.

What would prompt the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Regional Commerce and Growth Association and the William T. Kemper Foundation of St. Louis to invite urban journalists Neal Peirce and Curtis Johnson to St. Louis for two weeks? Apparently more than a few people were concerned about the overall health of the region and the downtown area, and wanted to talk about it.

That happened - the Peirce Report has fueled an ongoing debate about how the region should tackle some of its toughest urban problems.

The cost of bringing the two journalists to town, $150,000 in fees and expenses, however, was seen by some as simply an expensive op-ed piece; while others found Peirce and Johnson's perspective as a needed element in the debate about the region's health.

But, to what degree did the Peirce Report offer St. Louis meaningful solutions to the region's biggest challenges?

Although they were quite accurate in defining the issues the community needs to discuss, and did offer some unique approaches to tackling the problem, Peirce and Johnson's analysis often mirrored the recommendations they prescribed for the other thirteen cities they have visited. Without greater sensitivity to the unique political landscape of St. Louis, the Peirce Report could lead to a debate filled with inaccuracies that sidetrack St. Louisans from a more meaningful civic dialogue.

Since 1987, 14 metropolitan regions have invited Peirce and Johnson to interview, study and offer policy recommendations. They were Seattle, Spokane, Boulder, St. Paul, St. Louis, Phoenix, Dallas, Indianapolis, Owensboro, Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Reading, Pa.

Peirce and Johnson came to the table in these other cities with their own theory of how metropolitan areas needed to organize and structure their governance in order to face the onslaught of global competition.

Cities need to think of themselves as more than a sum of their parts, the two said.

The most common recommendations in the 14 reports are to form a regional citizens league, to form a new regional government, to promote fiscal equity through adopting a home rule charter, and to preserve the downtown as the region's collective turf.

Beyond these common themes of civic cooperation, Peirce and Johnson suggested that St. Louis use a "best practices model," where organizations such as St. Louis 2004 and FOCUS St. Louis glean the best examples of policy innovation from across the nation and tailor the ideas to fit the local situation. Peirce and Johnson consider the best practices model as a "break-out move for the region."

Peirce and Johnson formulated their outlook and strategies on St. Louis through interviewing about 150 St. Louisans at the Hyatt Regency Hotel at Union Station during two weeks in Oct. 1996, and by studying statistics and documents about the region.

What emerged from the "Call to Action" was a flurry of public forums, newspaper editorials, and references to the report in St. Louis 2004 and other civic organizations' publications.

Several staff reporters from the other 13 cities told the St. Louis Journalism Review that the study gave their region the beginnings of debate and a way to formulate solutions to their set of problems.

"Peirce and Johnson helped bring a focus to environmental issues such as urban sprawl, mass transit, and also the need for a regional citizen's league, which actually forming in Indianapolis right now," said Bill Theobald, the public-life reporter for the Indianapolis Star. "With regard to urban sprawl in Indianapolis, I think they hit the nail on the head."

Like Indianapolis, the Charlotte community began to debate what was the best way to try and manage growth after their Peirce Report. At the Urban Land Institute Forum this past May, Mary Newsom, associate editor of the Charlotte Observer noted that "(The Peirce Report) pointed out...(that) the only people planning (our) growth are the state road guys and developers." She continued, "The most specific result has been Central Carolina Choices. It has a two person staff and $750,000 worth of grants getting started."

Dale Singer, a reporter for the Post, who wrote several articles for a series called "An Ongoing Look at the St. Louis Region's Future" commented that he "often wonders" about the impact of the Peirce Report on St. Louis. "It's not a typical thing to capture the imagination. If I asked 100 people, 99 out of 100 would much rather talk about the St. Louis Cardinals signing Mark McGwire to a three-year contract."

Fundamental issues

Peirce and Johnson noted that there were no strong civic leaders in St. Louis that were stepping up to the plate and guiding the region to success. Moreover they noted that St. Louis is one of the most segregated cities in the nation, with deeply entrenched racial boundaries that stymie regional growth The racial segregation, they note, also correlates with the growing fiscal inequity between the city neighborhoods and surrounding suburban counties. They also pointed to the decline of St Louis' downtown.

The solutions they offered for these problems, however, leave many questions as to how the region should get a handle on these issues.

"Their job is to be provocateurs in a sense - that is their role to play. There was sort of familiarity with the recommendations Peirce and Johnson handed out to Indianapolis, like a one-size-fits-all - which I think diminished the impact that they have upon the region," said Theobald.

Their focus or St. Louis 2004 as the region's civic league leaves out the fact that the organization does not have much authority to secure urban-redevelopment-policy outcomes. St. Louis 2004 does not appear to be in a position in St. Louis to generate redevelopment projects that are large in scale or controversial because of the high number of interest groups involved in the deliberation process.

The "lack of connection" between whites and blacks stalls racial and regional progress according to Peirce and Johnson. They cite potential best practices models in other cities such as low-interest loans, media intervention and community service projects but this melange of ideas doesn't seem to have the force to impact the chronic high unemployment and economic disinvestment plaguing the north side. They are weak on specifics and showing just how these types of projects really have any substantive meaning to the issue of race.

Peirce and Johnson also recommend that downtown is in need of a coherent plan, and that businesses invest their money and time in the downtown area.

Yet asking businesses to invest in the city and volunteer their time and money goes against the economic logic of private firms in some critical ways. Although St. Louis would perhaps like to think that the business community is fully committed to the downtown, there have been many signals suggesting otherwise.

What are St. Louisans supposed to think when Anheuser Busch divests its holdings in the city and sells the baseball team, or when Ralston Purina moves to an adjacent suburb, or Southwestern Bell moves out of state? St. Louis 2004 cannot fill all these gaps in private civic commitment. If business is the civic leader Peirce and Johnson contend, St. Louis is lacking in strong private leadership that shows a staunch and loyal public face to the rest of the community.

And yet this is exactly what St. Louis needs to achieve the goals Peirce and Johnson cite: adoption of charter schools, economic investment in minority neighborhoods, bidding for government contracts, and specialized training of the local work force. Each one of these goals requires business leaders intervening into the local community and providing the necessary time and skill to make the region economically competitive. Although many may disagree, citing the overall health of the region, there is a legitimate fear that the Fortune 500s are not as steadfastly committed to the area as St. Louis or Peirce and Johnson would hope.

Public leadership is also attacked by Peirce and Johnson. Peirce writes in Citistates that "government is unable to reach the most fundamental cooperative agreements." But, with the "right civic forces," a citistate "has the potential to coalesce to achieve some form of shared governance. Business has the potential to enlist academic and government allies and start defining the citistates' potential niche or niches in goods and services with national and international appeal."

But what about the politics of shared governance? How easy is it for elite members of vastly different backgrounds - a businessman and an academic - to agree on regional issues. How will they come to share the same agenda? Are they truly representative of the community? In response to the Peirce Report, metropolitan areas are finding it much easier to focus on regional transportation issues or promoting cultural institutions than reorganizing their local governments.

What about government?

Peirce and Johnson acknowledge that changing the structure of St. Louis' local governments will most likely not have much of an impact. But the problem remains. There is a general sense from the past mayoral election, creation of St. Louis 2004 and the Peirce Report that local government is not working. But perhaps Peirce and Johnson are too quick in throwing the baby out with the bath water.

A quick look at history shows us that local government in St. Louis has worked in the past, and it can in the future. Although St. Louis has served for years as the national poster child for fragmented government, these problems exist in other metropolitan areas. We are not the only city to be beset with a fragmented government structure or racial tension. Crises in local leadership, as noted by the similarity of the Peirce Report's findings within the 14 cities shows us that St. Louis' problems are not wholly unique - St. Louis may suffer more with these problems than other cities, but they are essentially of the same nature.

Yet Peirce and Johnson maintain that civic culture, like the one they recommend to the other cities does not come from higher governments or any other authority.

But to assert that government is merely a top down organization does not recognize that democratically elected representation is the very essence of grassroots activism. Who else is in place to arbitrate and negotiate issues of civic leadership, racism, fiscal inequities and the current state of the downtown?

Moreover, political leadership must be involved in the setting up and carrying out of Peirce and Johnson's recommendations; without public finance of charter schools, work training, and giving individual entrepreneurs incentives to start up industry in minority neighborhoods, none of their suggestions will take off and succeed.

For example the TWA dome did not just come from a few private citizens coming together and financing the deal. Tax money from the state, county and city played a huge role in financing the project. MetroLink, St. Louis' mass transit project, will be publicly financed by a special tax on the public. The zoo and museum in Forest Park are in a special district created by the city government (in order to fund the institution for the greater public).

If Peirce and Johnson are sensitive to note that St. Louis would not appreciate a big regional government to tackle its problems, it must also acknowledge the role public representation from the neighborhood to federal level will play in actualizing their citistate model.

Although the two journalists did not recommend it, perhaps the region should start considering recommendations that Peirce and Johnson advocate that need the help of the public, such as adopting a home rule charter. Many people may think such an idea is crazy, but it would begin to alleviate the fiscal inequity between the prospering suburbs of Clayton and Ladue and the city.

Although the home rule charter is merely an example of what St. Louis can be thinking about, the fact remains that if the region is going to engage in a meaningful debate, the public sector simply cannot be ignored to the degree that it is. St. Louis, like any metropolitan region cannot stand solely on the heels of the private community. Rather, the public sector, along with its constituents, plays an essential and democratic role in determining policy outcome. Problems in local representation must be addressed just as much as the lack of private leadership in St. Louis. Everyone must be involved in this debate if we are to get anywhere.

The boilerplate

From the 14 reports, here are the themes of civic cooperation that Peirce and Johnson consistently propose:

* Restrict Growth: Instead of allowing the suburbs to continue to grow and draw social, economic, and political attention from the core, local governments need to step up to constrain further residential and commercial growth.

In his book Citistates, Peirce writes that "the time is more ripe than ever for an alliance of interests, environmentalists opposing development at the urban periphery joining with inner-city minorities to keep more job-producing firms within reach in established urban areas and away from distant greenfield sights." Seattle's Puget Sound area suffered from continued deforestation of their evergreen forests, and Phoenix's suburbs sprawled for tens of miles from the downtown.

In Peirce's estimation, St. Louis fails miserably in protecting the core of its region, and needs to reverse its continued destruction of the city's historic structure. Secondly, the suburban city councils must find the strength to fight the developers' plans for continued growth at the periphery.

* Promote Light Rail/Rapid Transit: Peirce and Johnson recommend the development of mass transit to connect towns and also alleviate the growing traffic problems for several cities. They note that heavy traffic not only stresses out workers, but the lengthy commute can decrease productivity and efficiency for many companies to the point that they may relocate. On a positive note, St. Louis stood out among all of the other cities in its continued expansion of Metrolink rapid transit, as no other city was actively building large-scale mass transit in their region.

* Regional Tax Base Pool: In order to even out the revenue base between the county and city, Peirce and Johnson recommend for Boulder, Seattle, Philadelphia and Indianapolis to share their respective county tax bases and use the funds to pay for trash collection, sewage disposal, as well as social services. For example, Indianapolis Centre Township, which is located in the center of the city, not only has to pay the local University's costs, but also for the large contingent of poor who utilize the township's social services.

A regional tax base pool is also a way to measure fiscal equity. Peirce writes in Citistates "(t)he 1990s may represent the last chance to avert an almost complete suburban-inner city standoff in America, with good jobs flying to the periphery, while entire cities sink ever deeper in disinvestment, underclass life, crime, and despair." Despite their remarks on the high level of government fragmentation and declining downtown area, Peirce and Johnson did not recommend a home rule charter for St. Louis.

* Bidding for Government Service Contracts: In order to cut costs and improve service, Peirce and Johnson recommended for the larger metropolitan areas such as Philadelphia, Reading, St. Louis, St. Paul, Boulder and Indianapolis to allow private companies to bid for services such as trash removal, and sewer maintenance. In this manner, constituents become consumers who will receive a higher level of service from market competition.

* Home Rule Charter: Peirce and Johnson perceived that local governments in Spokane, Reading and Phoenix did not have or exert enough political control over their own city. Consequently, they recommended that the community adopt a local home rule charter.

Reading's citizens passed an amendment creating a home rule county charter in 1993, which the two journalists heartily praised. "Too many decisions, from personnel to programs to budgets, become personal and politicized in an effort to get two of the three on one side. At the same time, the commissioners have a big bureaucracy to run. The system leaves nobody in charge and ultimately accountable, but it does create lots of jobs that the politicians defend with a vengeance."

* Creation of New Regional Government: No one is in charge, according to Peirce and Johnson. Local governments are immobilized to bring any regional policy to their communities, and consequently the entire region suffers. For every city that Peirce and Johnson visited except St. Louis and Owensboro, they recommended the creation of an independent regional government comprised of academics, business leaders, and neighborhood activists that would come together to formulate the much needed regional policy which politicians have so far been unable to successfully execute.

Peirce and Johnson suggest different names for these models of regional collaboration, but they are essentially the same thing: a new version of public representation for the twenty-first century. For Philadelphia, they recommended a first-time civic congress, for Indianapolis it was the Panel of Efficiency and Performance in Central Indiana (PEPCI).

The mission of the regional government would be to create a more cohesive and efficient citistate, define a new model for public decision making, and also recommend a qualified organization to keep on measuring and assisting the region's governments.

Surprisingly, the only metropolitan area they did not recommend a regional government was St. Louis because they simply did not think it would work. (Owensboro, Kentucky, however, was considered too small a metropolis as of yet to support such an organization.) "We don't talk about reform in city hall, or merging those 90 municipalities in St. Louis county ... (because) ... this region's level of suspicion and distrust are too high, its affection for small, very local government too great."

* Adopt Charter Schools: The bottom line: inner-city schools in St. Louis, Indianapolis, Reading and Dallas, are failing miserably and the schools should no longer be allowed to educate our youth if they cannot teach students basic skills they will need to participate in the work force. The solution? Get charter schools authorized in the respective state, and as Peirce writes in his report on St. Louis this "would let groups of teachers, universities, museums, any qualified form to set up a new small school with clear accountability standards."

Charter schools must meet state standards or else the hired administration will face suspension of their contract. Peirce and Johnson write in their St. Louis Peirce Report that with private organizations taking over the role of delivering education to students, school boards " ... would be buying, arranging, negotiating high quality education opportunity for all the kids in the city ... free of the conflicts of negotiating with employees ..."

* Historic Preservation and Promotion of Arts: St. Louis is not the only city that Peirce and Johnson singled out as disregarding its rich architectural history downtown. They also cited Spokane and Dallas as cities that need to actively protect and rehab the buildings and landmarks that give the city its unique flavor and mystique.

Coupled with a sensitivity to a community's history, Peirce and Johnson also advocate metropolitan cities such as Philadelphia, Spokane, St. Louis and Raleigh-Durham to promote the expression of fine arts on their downtown streets, sidewalks, buildings, schools and theaters.

Peirce and Johnson also recognize the role arts can play in healing racial boundaries. They recommended that white and black kids come together in St. Louis, Reading and Philadelphia to collaborate on civic arts projects which the community could also enjoy, such as a mural on a side of a building.

They deride the St. Louis Board of Aldermen's decision to ban street artists from performing in the downtown area. Such decisions go against the purpose of citizens communing in a collective space. Peirce notes in the St. Louis Peirce Report, "think about that stained-glass window in Union Station, St. Louis at the center, New York off to one side, San Francisco the other. Aim at nothing less than dramatic, full-bore downtown renewal; a downtown St. Louis reclaiming its attraction and grandeur."

* Creation of Regional Civic League: Unlike the regional government Peirce and Johnson touted for the cities to create in order to create and carry out regional policy, they also recommend the formation of an active citizen's league to both centralize and articulate the citizen's opinion among the myriad of communities in the area. As Peirce notes in his analysis of Indianapolis, "Hundreds of regional citizens do seem anxious to get past the limits of city or local politics, to become part of broader debates on the region's future."

Citizens' leagues have or are in the process of taking root in Charlotte, Indianapolis, Minneapolis-St. Paul and St. Louis with St. Louis 2004. Incidentally, Johnson headed the Citizens' League in Minneapolis-St. Paul for over a decade. They recommend that the league's membership "reflect the community, right from the beginning." The league should also actively recruit to get as close as possible to the region's range of social, professional, and racial backgrounds - all races and incomes, neighborhood activists to suburban commuters to farmers." The members work hard to research policy issues, find efficient and effective solutions, and then lobby their local representatives to push them through the right channels to become law.

Creating a collective voice for the community goes hand in hand with Peirce and Johnson's emphasis on neighborhoods fostering grassroots initiatives to tackle local problems, whether that is rehabbing abandoned buildings, providing after school activities for youth, or offering social services at the local level for various groups of people, such as unwed teenage morns, or the homeless.

In his book Citistates, Peirce notes that "...assistance offered in a way that lets people recreate community and self-responsibility can hold immense promise. A prescription for the right approach might focus on radical decentralization and radical personalization of outreach by the greater society." They also promote the proliferation of Community Development Corporations to join with grassroots initiatives in funding and carrying out these types of projects.

Peirce and Johnson look favorably upon St. Louis 2004 as the vehicle to promote significant regional change in the St. Louis area. They cite St. Louis 2004 in the Peirce Report as "clearly the biggest civic news in St. Louis for many a year." They consider the philanthropy to be "a major breakthrough - the kind few citistates get - to grab public attention, gather significant cash for civic projects and reach for the stars in a goal-setting process."

* Keep the Downtown as the Region's Common Ground: Problems such as urban sprawl and economic disinvestment from the city directly impact the vitality of the downtown. Peirce and Johnson cite the larger metropolitan cities such as Baltimore, Dallas, Phoenix and St. Louis and even the smaller town of Owensboro as regions that need to protect and promote their downtown as the vital connecting link with the rest of the surrounding regions. Many cities fall far from their ideal. For example, Peirce and Johnson describe Dallas's downtown as "having that neutron bomb look - buildings intact, the civilian population somehow vanished."

Revitalizing the downtown is not only about aesthetic improvements, but it is also an issue of attracting both national and international investment. As they note in St. Paul, a massive promotion of the arts will fuel the tourist economy. In Dallas, international businesses are looking for places to set up branch operations "and they expect a vibrant city atmosphere replete with sights, good ethnic restaurants, and sometimes a little sin."

Baltimore is a success story on many levels, as almost every year, there were landmark openings in the downtown, such as a new convention center in 1980, followed by the opening of a national aquarium, a concert hall, science center expansion, and many other projects each successive year.

They suggest that philanthropies, business, and the community at large make some sacrifices to utilize the existing office space, cultural attractions, and restaurants located in the central core.

This is not an easy task, as Mayor Harmon can attest. As the Post (Aug. 13) reported, the mayor "sees one of his biggest challenges as convincing people that they still have a stake in the city they left behind." St. Louis lags far behind other cities in refurbishing its downtown. "At St. Louis' current demolition rate, not a single downtown building will be standing 20 years from now," write Peirce and Johnson.

* Demand More from the Business Community: As schools fail under public school boards, workers do not have the necessary skills to fill local job openings, and public leadership is lacking a strong, coherent voice. Business leaders from all over are asked not only to open their pocket books, but also to make the metropolitan areas competitive against global market forces.

The business community's presence makes a marked impact in a city. Peirce and Johnson challenge Dallas' business community to invest more money on the south side of town which is predominantly black and Hispanic. They also note that Seattle's strong business community - comprised of Boeing, Nordstrom, Weyerhauser and Microsoft - as where the talent and leadership for the region lies. Yet in St. Paul, the leading business titans were no longer on the forefront in initiating a tone for how the community was going to position itself as an economic and social market, leaving the city without a clear vision for the future.

Anne Peterson is a Ph.D. candidate at Washington University.
COPYRIGHT 1997 SJR St. Louis Journalism Review
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Title Annotation:urban journalist Neal Peirce; study of urban problems in St Louis, Missouri
Author:Peterson, Anne
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Date:Oct 1, 1997
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