After the Deluge

Since the Flood of 93, Chesterfield boosters have used millions in public money to raise a levee and turn the bottomlands into a boomtown. But betting against the river is risky business.

As for the composition of the TIF commission, Stinnett says: "We have people from all walks of life -- CPAs, businessmen, marketing people. We select them on that basis so that we have a well-rounded economic-development authority."

The "well-rounded" TIF commission, in turn, coordinates its efforts with the five-member board of supervisors of the privately controlled Monarch-Chesterfield Levee District. If anything, the levee-district supervisors are more devoted to building up the levee and promoting development in the valley than the TIF commissioners. After all, it's their property values that hang in the balance. Henry Dubinsky, a valley businessman and vice president of the 2000 Coalition, sits on the levee-district board with William Kirchoff and Walter Graeler, both of whom sell real estate.

Another key figure is Richard "Dick" Hrabko, a former Chesterfield city councilman and longtime director of the St. Louis County-owned Spirit of St. Louis Airport. The airport owns 1,500 acres, which makes it the largest landowner in the valley. Before the flood hit, in June 1993, Hrabko and his fellow councilmen appropriated $400,000 to study the possibility of development in the valley. The city then estimated that the valley had room for an additional 20 million square feet of commercial property, which would generate an estimated $1 billion in construction. As councilman, Hrabko lauded the plan, saying the future of Chesterfield's tax base hinged on development in the valley. As airport director, Hrabko now says it's a matter of public need.

Mayor Nancy Greenwood: "[People building in the floodplain] feel confident.... But there are no guarantees in life that I know of."
Jennifer Silverberg
Mayor Nancy Greenwood: "[People building in the floodplain] feel confident.... But there are no guarantees in life that I know of."
Col. Michael Morrow of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Col. Michael Morrow of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

"From a transportation standpoint, the levee being raised is very, very important to the national air-space system and to the interstate-highway system in the metropolitan area," Hrabko says.

Although Chesterfield businessmen knew how to operate locally to get TIF money, they lacked influence with the Corps or in Congress. They realized they needed an inside man: Somebody who knew the players. Somebody who spoke the arcane languages of engineering and Washington politics. Somebody they could put on the public payroll. They didn't have to look too far. They found one of Chesterfield's most prominent residents, retired Col. Leon McKinney, former commander of the Corps' operations in the region, and the CCDC promptly hired him. He was their man: a career military officer with an impeccable service record; a West Point graduate, class of '55; a soldier whose picture hangs on the wall at the Corps' downtown headquarters in the company of other officers and gentlemen.

Chesterfield couldn't buy better advice. McKinney's career experience provides him with unparalleled insight into the Corps' bureaucracy, and years as a staff member for the Senate Appropriations Committee had given him an understanding of how Congress handles water-resource issues. His local involvement dates back to shortly after the 1993 flood, when some Chesterfield businessmen formed a group called the Phoenix Forum. "I've been working with them ever since," McKinney says.

And the city of Chesterfield has been paying him ever since, too. For the last seven years, the City Council has routinely renewed McKinney's semiannual consulting contract, and the CCDC pays him $3,500 a month -- more than $250,000 so far. McKinney's contract stipulates that he work with the levee district and coordinate his activities with the Chesterfield Valley 2000 Coalition, the private business group that succeeded the Phoenix Forum.

To the retired Army officer's thinking, everyone involved in the development of the floodplain deserves accolades. "It's been almost a textbook example of how our government is supposed to work," McKinney says. "You have the initiative starting at the private level. People have a problem, and they let their elected officials know at the local level. They raise their own money to do things. They get county government involved because they have an airport."

Then they need the federal government to reimburse some of that "local" money. The city has applied for more than $16 million in federal credits through the Corps for work already completed. If approved, that money will pay for most of the local cost-share. Under the federal formula, local sponsors are responsible for 35 percent of the total costs.

McKinney's role blurs the line between public and private interests: The city pays him to do consulting work for the landowners who are members of the levee district. If he gets the Corps to sanction the levee-raising and the project receives federal funding, these private interests are spared the expense of paying for their own flood protection.

Land prices in Chesterfield are already among the highest in the metropolitan area, having increased by a staggering 34 percent between 1992 and 1999, according to CCDC estimates. But assessed property values in the Chesterfield Valley have more than tripled since the flood. In January 1994, a little more than four months after the levee was breached, the cumulative assessed value of the valley property had decreased by almost 50 percent to $18 million. This year, it is estimated at $65 million.

The Corps plugged the property-value increases into its cost-benefit analysis to justify raising the levee.

To Kelley Isherwood, a retired banker and member of the Sierra Club, this is specious reasoning. "They've been allowing the development to take place, which then gives them the justification for building the levee to protect that development. It's the cart before the horse," Isherwood says. After the flood, there was a freeze on development in Chesterfield Valley, pending the completion of a flood-flow-frequency study by the Corps' researchers. But the Corps lifted the moratorium before the research could be completed and recertified the levee as safe in 1997. This move made flood insurance available again through FEMA. "(During) this whole period, they've been developing in that floodplain," Isherwood says. "All this development opened up before the (Corps') draft feasibility study was even in existence."

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