by Michael R. Allen
I’m definitely a supporter of the Missouri Downtown [and Rural] Economic Stimulus Act (MoDESA), which permits cities to take up to 50 percent of both state sales taxes and state withholding taxes generated by new development projects. The law gives cities up to 25 years to continue using this share of state taxes, and restricts use to infrastructure needs.
As someone who works downtown and who has been walking the streets of downtown since I was a child, I am excited at the prospect for infrastructure improvements downtown. Beyond Washington Avenue, most downtown streets could use anything from repaving to new sidewalks. All of downtown could stand new street, consistent lighting — the current distribution of new, fancier lights around new projects gives the appearance that the city doesn’t feel that the basics are important for all of downtown. Much of downtown infrastructure has deteriorated past the point of acceptability.
Of course, the city has not had the means to make big repairs. Much of downtown’s current infrastructure dates to 1950’s-era projects that were built when the city still had a residential population of around 856,000 people. The sort of public works consistency possible with that tax base is a distant memory nowadays, although completely necessary to attract new residents and business owners — and retain existing ones.
MoDESA is akin to the State Historic Tax Credit in that it levels things financially for older areas of great cultural importance that have special economic troubles that may otherwise be exceedingly difficult to address. Like tax credits, the MoDESA money is not a subsidy but an allowance to apply revenue generated in these areas to improvement projects — and since it applies to any area in the state that matches certain criteria, it doesn’t unfairly benefit cities or small towns. It just gives them some help.
There are political problems with using the money, and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay has already made moves that are suspect. For instance, the first MoDESA project was originally going to be based entirely on projects by the Pyramid Companies, and was revised to include one other project by another developer. However, this proposal will target the desolate Tucker Boulevard streetscape for improvements — long overdue.
A disappointing move on the Mayor’s part is his appointment of the local authority to oversee the MoDESA money. There are nine voting members and two non-voting members, including the mayor. The roster of the mayor’s eight appointments consists entirely of longtime political players, five of whom are members of city development boards, one of whom works for St. Louis University, and one of whom is Downtown St. Louis Partnership head Jim Cloar. Most glaring is the absence of a single downtown resident. Isn’t this the mayor who mentions downtown residents in every speech about development in the city?
MoDESA, however, is a good thing for the city and state despite the expected flaws in its application.