Otis Williams couldn’t have imagined that his first job with the city of St. Louis was mere seedling for the forest of economic development successes he would help navigate and bring to fruition. After 20 years with the city, Williams is retiring this month from his post as executive director of the St. Louis Development Corporation but leaves behind a city teeming with economic development foundations he helped to build.
Using pieces of his military experience combined with deep city proficiencies he was able to retain the St. Louis headquarters of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), a combat support organization under the United States Department of Defense and a member of the federal intelligence community. Keeping the agency and its 3,100 jobs in the city has attracted partnerships with universities and companies outside the region, priming the way for further growth. Additionally, NGA will build a $1.75 billion headquarters in a formerly blighted area in the north part of the city.
Williams spearheaded the recently released Equitable Economic Development Framework, a plan to “create collaborative opportunities for development and investment that benefit all the city’s people and neighborhoods,” according to its mission statement.
“One of our goals is to get investment bankers to invest in underserved areas. We have done a great job doing very big projects. Now we need to focus on the neighborhoods,” says Williams.
He also worked with key institutions to drive the development of an innovation ecosystem, spurred the development of a new baseball and soccer stadium and renovation of a major sports facility.
In the following interview Williams talks about how the city fared during Covid, why the NGA could transform an underserved area and what a massive greenway project will do for the community and surrounding regions.
How did St. Louis fare over the past year during the pandemic?
Like most of the nation we had a lot of restaurants struggling to survive. We are very strong in tourism so the fact that people were not traveling really hurt us. We also depend on the business traveler and that is just now picking up again. The casual tourist travel started to rebound in the March time frame and we are seeing sporadic days and weekends where many of the hotels are back to their normal occupancy..
I understand that 40% of the jobs lost during the pandemic in St. Louis will not come back. What are the most important initiatives the city can develop to counter those job losses?
Obviously, we will see a transition in our economy and in many ways we are depending on our innovation communities. Workforce training and being able to fill jobs that are being developed is important. We are fortunate to have a very vibrant geospatial, AgTech and financial ecosystem and we are making sure to train our job force so they can make the transition to those jobs.
What were the most important lessons learned during the pandemic period on the economic development side?
We found that people are very agile. Immediately when the crisis hit people found a number of ways to work through this. Communication was key and the funds provided through CARES act was a lifesaver for many. So, the role of the federal government was key. The resilience of the restaurateurs and tourism groups who worked hard to figure out how to survive was impressive.
We also learned that people can work from home and be effective and I’m not sure we will ever see 100% occupancy again. Companies will continue to have office space, but many will have options for their employees to work some portion of their week from a remote location.
Last year you helped develop a new Equitable Economic Development framework. How is that framework unfolding and what is next for further implementation?
We have divided the city into eight geographic areas, and we are hiring a person to oversee our Strategic Growth and Neighborhood Development division. That person will oversee these eight project managers. We are about to deploy that, and our goal is to be more proactive than reactive. We want to be out there with those neighborhood and community development organizations and work with them more frequently and be able to respond.
We have found a number of willing partners that have come to the table both from educational institutions and from nonprofits. The one that has grown most is from the geospatial ecosystem. We went through the great exercise to retain the NGA and as a result the universities and corporate St. Louis have come to the table.
We realized we have a strong ecosystem already here but it is being further developed by companies coming from outside of the region. It’s an ecosystem that has its basis in the NGA. Six years ago, that agency was looking for a new location and we were able to compete and retain them in the city. In addition to them staying they are going to build a $1.75 billion headquarters in a former blighted area in North City, an underserved area. We will use that as an anchor and build from it and hope that will transform the area.
You also have a strong innovation center. How did that come into being?
I am really proud of our innovative climate here; we have one of the great innovative centers in the world which is Cortex . It started in 2002 with the support of Washington University in St. Louis, Saint Louis University, University of Missouri – St. Louis, BJC Healthcare, and the Missouri Botanical Garden. We have had great institutional support to get our innovation community going. Cortex and T-REX, our downtown innovation center, provided great impetus for us to move forward with innovation. T-REX is championing efforts in geospatial. Cortex is working with other innovation centers in the region and its growth has exploded. They have far exceeded our expectations and we are very happy about that.
The Great Rivers Greenway (GRG) project is phenomenal with 600 miles of greenway planned to connect areas throughout your region. In particular, the Brickline Greenway will span 20 miles connecting 17 neighborhoods in St. Louis. Describe how transformative this project will be for St. Louis (see upcoming story on the Brickline project in the next edition of CityRevive).
The Great Rivers Greenway is an outstanding organization; their leadership and board have been great partners. In essence, it will connect four major city parks and has an intentional effort to be very inclusive particularly going north.
One of the four parks is actually in North St Louis which is one of the underserved areas here. Through GRG’s efforts we are hopeful we can have intentional redevelopment along the Brickline and connect the communities. The energy and support they have garnered as a result of their plan and efforts is tremendous. The GRG and the pipeline they are generating is very supportive of our equitable economic development framework. It is a win and will be the basis of a lot of economic redevelopment.
During your 20 years with the city what progress has been made in quelling racial tensions?
I think we are reflective of the nation. We are still working through a lot of issues. We have had successes and still have challenges. We recognize where we are and are having open discussions on how we can move forward with redevelopment in areas where we traditionally haven’t. The Equitable Economic Development Framework is a testament to that effort. Along with our progressive political environment we hope to have a much more inclusive city in the future.
What has been the favorite part of your job as director of economic development?
Working with the people, interacting with the development and finance communities and with government. We cannot do a good job without working with a whole lot of city partners; all the financial and educational institutions, the folks who are granting the permits, those who want us to stay in-line with zoning and all those things. They’ve all been so supportive. I know most of these folks now and consider them friends and they have helped me throughout the process.
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