New St. Louis

Time for this town to cash in on Hurricane Katrina

"Given the changing image of the inner city in recent years -- it's no longer perceived as just a dangerous and dilapidated place -- I suspect that a fair number of people would welcome the opportunity to relocate to St. Louis' underutilized neighborhoods," Hurley says. "But I also suspect that a fair number would pick up and move to outlying suburbs as soon as they got the chance, just adding to our problems of sprawl."

Andrew Theising, professor of urban studies and politics at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, tempers his enthusiasm with a caveat of a different sort: "We need to fill up our excess capacity with people. When St. Louis was a big, bustling city of 800,000, we were a city of immigrants. People coming to St. Louis from around the world clearly is what gave this city its bulk, its size, its power and its capacity. I don't see how you can make St. Louis a great city again without making it a magnet for people outside the region.

"Is it realistic to bring people here from New Orleans?" Theising asks. "Yes and no. Yes, because we could move them and house them. But we need people to help settle them and assimilate them -- not just move them."

Local communications and real estate magnate Mike Roberts calls the idea "frivolous," but he's not averse to contemplating its upside. "If we're going to wax philosophically, you've got to ask: What is special about New Orleans that we all recognize? It's got the Mississippi. We've got the Mississippi. It has riverboat gaming. We have riverboat gaming. It's the heart and soul of music, partying and Mardi Gras. We have the second-biggest Mardi Gras. They have adult clubs. We don't, but we do on other side of the river. I think our challenge is we're a little too conservative by nature to be perceived as a hip, cool spot to hang out."

Moving New Orleans 700 miles north "would predominantly benefit the African-American community," Roberts notes -- provided black contractors are permitted to benefit from the growth. "I think too it would substantially increase the political base for the African-American community and allow for more leadership," he adds. "You put 300,000 to 400,000 new voters -- or even a million -- into your state, you're going to change things. It would certainly benefit the Democratic Party."

So Missouri might become a Blue state -- and St. Louis a two-football-team town.

"It would certainly make the [Edward Jones] Dome a lot more cost-effective," points out sports economist and Webster University faculty member Patrick Rishe. "The city of New Orleans and state of Louisiana have given so many kickbacks and tax money to [Saints owner] Tom Benson to keep the team in the city. Now following Katrina, I think they're going to have to spend that money elsewhere."

Not that the National Football League would permit it. "They could pull off dual football teams here because the NFL has such great revenue sharing," Rishe says. "But the owners would have to approve the move, and that's doubtful -- and the Rams probably would not want the competition."

Pro basketball is another matter, says Rishe, citing abysmal attendance figures posted by New Orleans' National Basketball Association franchise, the Hornets. "I think it's a real scenario that the Hornets move here. Prior to the devastation of Katrina, the Hornets were probably going to leave New Orleans in the next five years anyway," Rishe says. "We were in contention for the Hornets. [St. Louis Blues owner] Bill Laurie wanted to own the team outright, but that was not the preference of George Shinn, the owner. So it never happened.

"But as much as it would pain those in St. Louis, Kansas City has a better shot of landing the Hornets, because they're building a new arena," Rishe concludes.

"If St. Louis said, 'We will take you all in, no questions asked, if you want to come,' that would be marvelous," says Herbert Gans, reached by phone at Columbia University, where he teaches sociology. "And if there's something in it for St. Louis in terms of using the infrastructure -- I think that would be economically very sensible in terms of the national interest. It was a big city, and there's lots of that big-city infrastructure left and it ought to be revitalized."

Gans, author of The Urban Villagers, a classic study of Italian-American residents in Boston's West End, is quick to minimize the chances of St. Louis actually cashing in on a significant scale. But he likes the notion nevertheless. "If the government of Missouri could even as a trial balloon propose it, that would be marvelous, simply so it gets on the record and can be discussed.

"I wouldn't assume that anything will happen, but that's no argument against raising it," Gans adds. "If enough cities then said, 'Gee we could do that too,' and they compete, that suddenly raises the value of all these poor New Orleans people and the president would have to dole some out to Detroit and some to St. Louis. I'm fantasizing here a little bit, but I think it's a marvelous idea."

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