Jobs are leaving, the tax base is shrinking and the population is dropping. North County is feeling the squeeze.

Jennings Mayor Benjamin Sutphin has lived in the city for 20 years. "When we moved in, we were within five minutes of any shopping you wanted to do. That's not true today," he says. "There's not really anyplace to do Christmas shopping. You have to go to Ferguson, Florissant, Jamestown or Northwest Plaza," he says.

"Everybody is migrating on out to St. Charles and West County, and a lot of the shopping conveniences have gone with them," Sutphin says. The departure of needed medical services is just an added blow.

"North County is still saturated with people, young people and families. I think they're kind of abandoning us to a point," he says. "It's like when they closed the city hospitals. I think that was a crock, too. It's like now all they're looking for is big high class and the big money, and to heck with the common folk."

Longtime Florissant Mayor James Eagan is decidedly upbeat about his city's future, but all 10 of his children live elsewhere:  "For some reason they all have to have brand-new houses. And we don't have brand-new houses."
Jennifer Silverberg
Longtime Florissant Mayor James Eagan is decidedly upbeat about his city's future, but all 10 of his children live elsewhere: "For some reason they all have to have brand-new houses. And we don't have brand-new houses."

Ferguson suffered a steep decline in population in the 1980s, something Mayor Steve Wegert attributes to white flight and the effects of uncontrolled urban sprawl. "When Ferguson was incorporated 100 years ago ... people wanted to move away from the dirt and noise of downtown," he says. "This was urban sprawl back then. We've both benefited and are now a victim of urban sprawl."

He sees the layoffs associated with McDonnell Douglas and the company's subsequent merger with Boeing as a factor in the region's decline. In 1990, at its peak, McDonnell Douglas employed 40,000 people in the St. Louis area. Today, a fraction of that number, 16,300 people, work for Boeing -- and more layoffs are likely.

"Boeing was to North County what Chrysler is to Fenton. That's the major employer, the major tax base," Wegert says. "When a company like that has problems and is significantly downsized, it has a ripple effect."

He agrees that the area also continues to suffer from the "go west" syndrome.

"People are moving to what they view as better opportunities, better jobs, better fill-in-the-blank. We still are slowly bleeding the middle class out of our North County communities, and that is the key to the strength of a community -- the middle class."

Retail has left his city, too. Ferguson went without a supermarket for two years after Schnucks pulled out, although it has since been replaced with a Shop-'N-Save.

What can stem, or reverse, the decline? Wegert believes North County municipalities must better market themselves and provide better services. His city is considering whether to build a community center, for instance. He says St. Louis County government hasn't helped matters, with decisions like one that replaced a Target facility on I-270 in Ferguson with a non-revenue-generating church. "It just doesn't make any sense that a complex the size of a Target store with frontage on the highway and the best the county could do to help fill that facility is a church," he says.

He wants the county to do more to help.

"There needs to be a concerted push from the county and the state to help with these migrations," Wegert says.

In Florissant, where the mayor worries about the viability of the city's North County neighbors, Eagan sees property-tax-base sharing as "the answer. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out." It was proposed in an October study by Minnesota lawmaker Myron Orfield called "St. Louis Metropolitics" and commissioned by Metropolitan Congregations United for St. Louis, a coalition of 62 churches.

The idea could provide lower taxes and better services to 80 percent of the region, the study claims, if cities contributed a portion of their tax base to a pool, which would then be redistributed on the basis of a formula that would give preference to cities struggling with low tax bases and high social needs. Most of the biggest recipients would be inner suburbs such as Wellston, Pine Lawn and Jennings.

But Eagan holds out little hope that such a plan could become reality: "Until such time there is state legislation mandating such an approach, it is not going to happen. People are not voluntarily going to do this. The cities that have do not want to give to the cities that have not."

Judd sees no easy answers, either, given the sheer number of municipalities in North County. "In this metropolitan area, there has always been huge resistance to any idea of consolidating municipalities. But short of that, I don't know what can be done."

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