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The shuttle buses were working overtime in Earth City on a rainy night last month, ferrying passengers to an invitation-only party at the Rams Park training facility. At the entrance, volunteers handed out ticket stubs for a door-prize drawing; inside, hungry guests piled on free helpings of barbecue, baked beans and potatoes. On big display tables lay reams of handouts and stacks of brochures. The celebration marked the midway point of St. Louis 2004 -- the big civic do-gooder organization launched in 1996 -- and as 700 people milled about on the Astroturf, the mood was cheery, upbeat and congratulatory.
Invitations played on every sports cliché, capitalizing on the location of the party: "Go 2004 Team! Come celebrate the Big Plays and view the playbook for taking us into the end zone. Tailgate with BBQ and the Fabulous Motown Revue. Play wide receiver and take a Rams Park tour. Visit the Initiative booths and see progress happening region-wide. Come cheer the whole 2004 team!"
And, in case some guests didn't know exactly why they were there or what they were celebrating, there were plenty of cheerleaders to chase away any doubts or misgivings. St. Louis 2004 really was much more than talk; St. Louis 2004 really had accomplished important things. As radio personality and event emcee Nan Wyatt told guests, "You all wouldn't be here tonight if nothing had been done, if this had evaporated into nothing but talk." To reinforce the point, guests watched a slick video that touted more than a dozen of St. Louis 2004's good deeds -- including a program for teens in the small suburb of Jennings, an advertising campaign promoting access to health care and a tax to support regional parks.
If those accomplishments seemed like small potatoes, be assured the best is yet to come. As St. Louis 2004 chairman John Danforth told the crowd, the region is still on track for a resurgence. "In three years, we will accomplish a revival. We, not some group called St. Louis 2004. We, the 2-and-a-half million people of the region."
By the time the former Republican U.S. senator was finished, the audience was on its feet, cheering. But they hadn't heard the whole story.
Ever since banker Andy Craig accepted his "Man of the Year" award five years ago, St. Louisans have been exhorted to "Think 2004" -- to imagine the possibility of turning around the fortunes of a sagging second-tier city and making it a place where people want to be.
In his acceptance speech, Craig said St. Louis ought to use the landmark year 2004 -- the centennial anniversary of the 1904 World's Fair and the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition -- as a reason to celebrate its history and its future. St. Louisans, Craig said, needed to host world-class events in 2004 -- "a Super Bowl, the NCAA Final Four and the baseball All-Star Game" -- and create "our own events in the cultural and performing arts." Now was the time to push forward with such ambitious plans as renovating Forest Park, expanding Lambert Field and extending the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial into Illinois.
"The point," Craig said, reading from a speech penned by public-relations exec Al Kerth, "is to let the imaginations run free."
Of course, some of the imagining had already been accomplished, Craig revealed. He and Kerth and others had quietly formed an independent, nonprofit organization, St. Louis 2004, to serve as the catalyst for change. And though Craig would, months later, deliver St. Louis-based Boatmen's Bancshares Inc. to acquisition-hungry NationsBank, there were plenty of local movers and shakers willing to sign on and write checks. Among the cast of prominent St. Louisans who would later rally to the cause were University of Missouri-St. Louis Chancellor Blanche Touhill, BJC Health System president Fred Brown and Missouri Botanical Garden director Peter Raven. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch weighed in with its editorial blessing, calling St. Louis 2004 "an intriguing idea," and Danforth, who'd returned to St. Louis from Washington, D.C., a year earlier, after three terms in the Senate, agreed to join the organization as its unpaid chairman.
Danforth signed on at the invitation of Craig, Kerth and Walter Metcalfe, senior partner at the Bryan Cave law firm. Getting him was a coup -- not only did the ex-senator bring political experience, but as a member of the city's largest philanthropy and heir to the Ralston Purina fortune, he was in a position to help with funding. And for St. Louis 2004's ambitious agenda, money would be critical. In its inaugural year, the nonprofit attracted nearly $1.5 million in contributions, and the donations would continue to grow. In 1997, the nonprofit was well established in its offices on the twelfth floor of the Metropolitan Square Building downtown, and its highly paid staff -- its top six employees earned $100,000 a year or more -- was operating with an annual budget of nearly $3 million.
With those resources, St. Louis 2004 organized more than 100 community meetings -- dubbed "visioning sessions" -- to ask residents of the region what they liked about St. Louis and what they would change. From those meetings, St. Louis 2004 launched six "action teams" and dozens more task forces to come up with ideas and ways to achieve them. And from those teams and task forces, St. Louis 2004 distilled an action plan that Danforth described as "the beginning of the most dramatic revival St. Louis has ever seen."