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Going after Amazon: Ehlmann asks for a regional approach that includes St. Charles County

While local economic development officials scramble to finalize their bid, by mid-October, for Amazon’s second headquarters, some the area’s chief elected officials are asking if that proposal will reflect the entire Missouri-Illinois region.

St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann is continuing to ask who makes the final decision on what will be submitted and the process involved. That discussion came up on Sept. 27 at the monthly meeting of the East-West Gateway Council of Governments Board of Directors in downtown St. Louis.

In an interview on Sept. 21, Ehlmann said he’s asking whether the proposal will include sites and information from throughout the region or just St. Louis City and County. He said the effort may set a precedent on how regional St. Louis City and County will be in the future.

Ehlmann continued to press his questions at the board meeting. “I just want to know what the rules are for being considered or possibly making the cut,” he told the board.

His comments were made during the course of a briefing on the Amazon proposal by St. Louis Economic Development Partnership CEO Sheila Sweeney. The partnership is the economic development agency serving St. Louis City and County and has rushed to compile a proposal to submit by an Oct. 19 deadline.

Amazon’s second headquarters may generate 50,000 jobs and amount to a $5 billion construction project. With what’s at stake, the project has ignited a firestorm of interest around the country as cities and metropolitan regions race to finalize their bids.

Part of Ehlmann’s concern has do with five of the county’s largest municipalities who were interested in being involved in the bid. The cities of Lake Saint Louis, O’Fallon, St. Charles, St. Peters and Wentzville met with Jim Alexander, senior vice president for economic development with the St. Louis Regional Chamber on Sept.20 to convey that information.

Ehlmann at times sharply questioned Sweeney and Jamey Edgerton, senior vice president for the Partnership, as they reviewed their efforts to pull together a regional proposal. He questioned how information, submitted from 24 sites including St. Charles County, would be weighed and reviewed.

You’ve said St. Louis eight or nine times, do you mean St. Louis City or St. Louis County or the St. Louis region?” Ehlmann said.

Sweeney said she meant the region. She said that information from throughout the region would be evaluated.

Ehlmann also asked who was going to make the final decision on the regional submittal. Sweeney defined the decision-makers as St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger and St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern and possibly Ehlmann if “St. Charles County wants to join us.”

Why would we not want to join? Why would we not be part of that?” Ehlmann said. “Twenty-four percent of the new jobs in the last three year have been created by people in St. Charles County. Why not Madison County? They have done a great job of creating jobs in the last few years – and anyone in Jefferson and Franklin counties. Are we supposed to stay with the blinds drawn as part of the decision making process.

You all are doing a great job for the people who pay you and that’s fine,” Ehlmann said concerning St. Louis City and County. “If you want this to be a regional submittal, how is that going to take place?”

Kern said the proposal to be submitted “is so immense that we there is no one part of this region that, by itself, can handle Amazon or can land this.

I think this is really important that we all submit the components that we think that are the strengths we have because that will make a better regional proposal.”

Jefferson County Executive Ken Waller said he’s frustrated with the lack of transparency in the process and the information and area needed by Amazon.

Left unclear is whether the Missouri state government incentives for Amazon would be part of the package. Krewson said she couldn’t imagine a proposal of this size not having incentives.

Meanwhile, Sweeney outlined advantages that should be attractive to Amazon including two major airports, a stable business climate, available office space and strong cultural assets. She did not discuss specific locations in detail but said in a later interview that downtown St. Louis has office space that could be considered.

Included in the proposal will be information on the Jason Shockley police shooting case in St. Louis City this year and the shooting of Michael Brown and civil unrest that followed in Ferguson in 2014.

We need to own it,” Sweeney said. She said there was nothing that the region should shy away from with Amazon, which can help in fixing the underlying problems. “Our weaknesses we’re trying to turn to strengths,” she said.

Krewson asked if the East-West Gateway Council of Governments would be submitting the proposal to Amazon.

The Gateway Council Board, which includes the Missouri-Illinois region’s chief elected officials, normally decides on priority spending for transportation projects and studies some regional issues. James Wild, the council’s executive director, invited Sweeney to speak simply to update officials. But the board came away from the meeting discussing whether they should sign off on the proposal.

Kern said he felt the council should be a signatory with a support letter. He said assembling the submission might be done in closed session to prevent other communities from getting wind of what the region might submit.

But other meeting participants said the issue should be brought back to the  Gateway Council board.

It’s something that’s never going to be this big again,” said Richard Kellett, a regional citizen on the board. “Like everybody said, we can’t blow this.”

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