Riverfront at renovated Arch Grounds

As has been documented extensively, the Arch grounds are getting a makeover. Initially a grandiose plan was proposed – costing about a half billion dollars – that was to be funded by private donations and the federal government. Alas, the fed’s contributions as well as those from  private donors have been less generous than anticipated and the plan had to be scaled down to a still considerable $380 Million. A big change is that funding of the plan now has to come largely out of the pockets of the St. Louis tax payer; you and me. And with St. Louis tax payer I mean St. Louis County and St. Louis City residents. St. Charles County has refused to put the Arch tax on the ballot.

Again, I am not against a renovation of the Arch grounds; the museum and the grounds are dated and in need of a serious update. I do very much question the wisdom and even the ethics of asking local  tax payers of just two counties in the St. Louis Metropolitan area to pay for it. The first and main reason being: we don’t own the Arch grounds. The Arch grounds are part of the Museum of Westward Expansion which is run by the National Park Service, a U.S. Federal Agency. As it happens, this agency is currently facing severe budget cuts and parks could see later opening times, earlier closing times and more serious setbacks. Of course, you and me, the St. Louis tax payer, would have no control and could face a situation where we would get less or no bang for our buck.

The second reason is purely economics 101. We are living in a region that is lagging in economic development. In short: we are not keeping up with national and global developments. This means that we are becoming less and less competitive and therefore losing our significance in the nation and the world. Facing these facts I question the decision to ask the tax payers to pay for the Arch Grounds, really a vanity project. Of course the backers of the project make big promises: we will be seeing thousands of new visitors that will spend millions in the region.

But is this really going to happen? Consider this paragraph in a recent article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

The museum has steadily lost visitors in the past decade. In 2001, 3.5 million people visited the Arch. By 2010, only 2.4 million visited.

These numbers are most definitely correct. But is this really due to the fact that the Arch grounds are outdated? I don’t think so.

First, do you think a potential visitor is really thinking: “I would love to see the Arch but not before they renovate those outdated grounds!” Of course not. It’s like saying “I would love to see the pyramids but it’s too sandy around them.”

The fluctuation of visitors at the Arch is almost entirely driven by purely economic factors. A big reason for the drop in visitors at the Arch is the drop in passengers at Lambert. Consider the next three graphs:

St. Louis Gateway Arch Visitors 1989-2012

 

Lambert-STL Airport Passengers 1989-2012

 

Correlation Lambert-STL & Arch Visitors

As one can see there is a significant correlation between passenger numbers at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and visitors at the Arch. This is no coincidence. In the TWA heyday Lambert Airport and St. Louis were visited by droves of connecting (transfer) passengers that ended up staying overnight and used the occasion to visit the Arch. After 2004 Lambert lost half of its traffic. The impact on Arch visitor numbers is clearly visible. The Arch wasn’t affected more badly because it still gets a lot of visitors that travel by car, not by air.

Lambert-St. Louis Airport C Concourse

I make the case that if we injected $380 Million in Lambert Airport we would see a far greater return on our investment than sinking it into the National Park that is the Arch grounds. Again, we don’t own the Arch Grounds. We DO own the Airport, which coincidentally is drowning under a one billion dollar burden of debt. With a small tax increase we could restructure Lambert’s debt, largely pay off the new runway, significantly lower the landing fees -which are the second highest in the nation after New York’s La Guardia – and give airlines incentives to add flights.

Why are we ignoring a billion dollar debt on a property we own but at the same time think it’s okay to tax our citizens to put $380 Million in a property we don’t. It makes no sense.

The saddest part is that cities around the world are getting it. Almost every world-class city is investing in its airport because they understand the importance of being connected to the global economy. In the meantime, St. Louis is renovating a National Park.

MoDOT is spending $57 Million on infrastructure at the Arch we really don’t need while existing infrastructure is crumbling. After the Arch tax wait for a MoDOT tax and then a Rams tax.

We cannot tax ourselves to prosperity. What we need is economic development, job creation, startups, innovation and connections to the global economy. For $380M we could give 7,600 startups a $50,000 Arch Grant. Don’t you think that would give us a better return on investment?

Our local leaders, including the Mayoral candidates, remind me of a group of captains on the Titanic fighting over control of the wheel of a sinking ship. But let’s be more positive. Let’s say we missed most of the iceberg but we’re making water and our engines have stalled. It’s not too late to right the ship and get it under steam again.

The Arch is not going to leave town if we don’t fix its grounds now. Yes, it is the Gateway to the West but this is no more than symbolism. Lambert Airport is our Gateway to the World.

And that’s where our future lies.

 

Written by Frank DeGraaf