Since its completion in 1965, the Gateway Arch has been not only an iconic piece of the St. Louis skyline, but also an enduring symbol of American opportunity. Its architect, Eero Saarinen, was inspired by America’s westward expansion, the goal of which was creating what Thomas Jefferson called an “empire of liberty.” Nearly 220 years after the Louisiana Purchase, that empire continues to expand—not geographically into new territories, but economically into new communities.

Nowhere is that more evident than in St. Louis, whose landmark arch continues to embody the American spirit just a few miles southeast of Next NGA West, a sprawling and cutting-edge new campus of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). Set to open in 2025 in north St. Louis, the $1.7 billion campus was designed to serve and strengthen the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), but in so doing will also serve and strengthen the historically disadvantaged neighborhoods around it.

That’s thanks to Project Connect, a community-led neighborhood planning initiative whose objective is using Next NGA West as a catalyst for equitable and inclusive economic development in six inner-city neighborhoods that abut the new government campus. Led by the City of St. Louis, the project was the subject of a 45-minute panel discussion Wednesday afternoon at GEOINT 2021, where local leaders convened to share their grassroots approach to urban planning.

“Many high-growth metros leverage their industry-cluster strengths to embrace inclusive growth, but what we did was embrace racial equity from the start,” said panel moderator Jason Hall, CEO of Greater St. Louis Inc. “To not only grow around [GEOINT], but to reduce barriers so that all of our residents could participate and benefit from this exciting new industry.”

Those who reside in the neighborhoods into which NGA is moving will be beneficiaries of Next NGA West because they are actively contributing to its planning and development, explained the panelists: Otis Williams, former executive director of the St. Louis Development Corporation (SLDC); Neal Richardson, SLDC’s current executive director; Don Roe, executive director of the St. Louis Planning and Urban Design Agency; Zekita Armstrong Asuquo, president and CEO of Gateway Global American Youth and Business Alliance Academies Inc.; and James Page, alderman of St. Louis’s 5th Ward.

“Neighborhoods are the building blocks of great cities,” explained Roe, who said urban planning in Project Connect neighborhoods will encompass not only land use—typically urban planners’ chief concern—but also education, economic development, family wealth creation, public health, and safety. The goal, he stressed, is to let community members shed light on potential problems, and then take an active role in finding potential solutions.

Panelists detailed several of those solutions during Wednesday’s session. Through community engagement, for example, stakeholder learned that residents’ biggest priority is work. Through her organization, Asuquo is therefore partnering with NGA to create training opportunities for youth ages 16 to 24, including internships and apprenticeships that will give them the skills they need to be part of the GEOINT workforce—regardless of their income or education level.

Locals also are concerned about gentrification. In response, NGA is declassifying a portion of its campus to engage residents and host the aforementioned training opportunities for youth.

“There are families and households within the area of NGA that have income levels of around $17,000 per year. NGA is creating jobs that pay over $100,000 per year. Imagine the opportunities that can be created if we’re able to … raise up those residents, connecting them with employment opportunities at NGA and those other businesses that will be centered and located around the NGA facility,” Richardson said. “But we also must make sure that we do not displace those individuals who have been committed to these areas. That’s why the planning process is so critical. We must align our financial resources and human resources to … ensure that as we are building wealth, the benefit of that wealth is being realized by [local] residents and businesses.”

In that way, Project Connect has something vital in common with GEOINT: Process is the means, but human benefit is the end.

“At the end of the day, it’s about people,” Hall said. “[GEOINT] is not only going to solve the world’s biggest challenges; it’s going to lead by example of what inclusive development can truly look like in this country.”

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Posted by Matt Alderton