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St. Louis' Strange Civic Creed 

It's one for all, all for one and every county for itself

Two years ago, I started a speech to a West County church group with the following question:

"How many of you are from St. Louis?"

The intended "St. Louis" response was predictable; many in the audience immediately asked: "Do you mean city or county?"

"No," I said, "this is an unaided-recall question. Let me ask you again: How many of you are from St. Louis?"

At this point, most everyone in the group understood what I was getting at, and roughly two-thirds responded that, yes, they were from St. Louis.

"Now, then, let's go around the room and learn the hometowns of some of our non-St. Louisan visitors," I continued.

It turns out that Manchester, Mo., was host this night to travelers from such faraway lands as Florissant, St. Charles, High Ridge, Chesterfield and Belleville. There was no hesitation on their part to declare their hometown pride -- to the few hundred others in the church -- although some allowed as how they might say they were from St. Louis if they were traveling, say, in New York.

But at home, in what is officially known as the St. Louis metropolitan area, these residents were not about to say "I'm from St. Louis" without a qualifier stating that they weren't from the city. So I asked still another question:

"Let me ask you non-St. Louisans this: Aren't you a little jealous of the people of the city of St. Louis? After all, they have Mark McGwire and you don't."

This was in the summer of McGwire's magical 70-homer season, and it's safe to say that the query wasn't especially appreciated. Then again, I'm customarily invited to speak to groups only once.

My point then -- as it is now -- was simple: When there's something wonderful happening within the boundaries of the city of St. Louis, it belongs to all of us in one big happy region. But when it comes to costs or difficulties associated with an urban central core, then the "city of St. Louis" might as well be on the North Pole.

The Arch, the zoo, the symphony, the sports teams -- any of the jewels that just happen to be physically located within the city proper -- these belong to "St. Louisans" spanning at least three area codes. As to providing the revenues needed for police, fire, EMS and street services attendant to these institutions and others, why, those are the city's problems, aren't they?

This all came to mind last week as I read a Post-Dispatch news item related to the latest disingenuous attempt by the St. Louis Cardinals to dislodge roughly one-third-of-a-billion dollars from the public sector for the purpose of multiplying their private wealth with a new baseball stadium. But this isn't about that crime in progress.

No, what caught my attention was the role of St. Louis' surrounding counties in assisting the team's handpicked "Stadium Authority" with its rubber-stamp review of the stadium scam. It seems these officials have been asked to bless the authority's plan to "do the first serious financial analysis of the pitch to build a baseball stadium downtown with taxpayer support."

Here's how the bidding opened:

"None of the chief executives of St. Louis or the four surrounding Missouri counties offers anything near an endorsement of public subsidy for a new stadium. The top official of St. Charles County quickly ruled out providing any help from his county's treasury."

The emphasis is provided by me. The quickness was provided by St. Charles County Executive Joe Ortwerth.

It was simply automatic -- particularly in the case of St. Charles County -- that financially participating in a project within the city limits is utterly out of the question. This is hardly surprising, because St. Charles officials always view ideas for St. Louis city or county strictly though their intensely local prism, but this one seemed more matter-of-fact than most.

"(Ortwerth) said he already has told Cardinals' management that St. Charles County should not try to help pay for a new baseball stadium," the Post reported. "(He) said the county's duty is to pay off the St. Charles County Family Arena, which opened in the fall at a cost of $32 million."

Make no mistake -- I think it's great that public officials are saying no to this horrendous transference of public resources in St. Louis to a Cincinnati-based group of multimillionaires (that would be the Cardinals). Yet something tells me we've reached the same conclusion for very different reasons.

This is, after all, the first time I've found myself in agreement with the ultraconservative Ortwerth (although one always must be careful, from an eternal point of view, about criticizing a fellow who is being "called by the Lord" to run for Missouri lieutenant governor). And it's not as if he's raging about public support of stadium projects.

Instead, I was reminded of that McGwire question.

In fairness to St. Louis County -- within which much anti-city sentiment also resides -- there are plenty of examples of regional cooperation and cost-sharing that show an understanding of a larger common good. The most obvious are the convention center (albeit a fiasco itself) and the Zoo-Museum District, through which city and county residents share in support of the zoo, the science center, the art museum and the history museum, all of which are located within the city limits.

It seems to me that this model should be expanded to include St. Charles and Jefferson counties in Missouri and St. Clair and Madison counties in Illinois. Areawide support for public institutions and major projects -- including those in the so-called surrounding counties -- should keep pace with areawide pride.

As one step forward, the Zoo-Museum District should be expanded, with the surrounding counties invited to join as taxpayers. If they choose to join, fine. If not, fine.

But the institutions should then have a two-tiered system of pricing and benefits, one that rewards residents of the taxing districts that support them and charges tourists and others who don't. The zoo, for instance, could be free for residents of the city and those counties who support it but charge a few bucks to those from "out of town."

With luck, that tourist status wouldn't fall upon residents of St. Charles and other surrounding counties, who are -- after all -- just as much a part of St. Louis as residents of the city and county.

Just ask them when Big Mac steps to the plate.

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