A program to inject $37 million into north St. Louis still hasn’t given out any grant

A $37 million program to inject much-needed capital into north city businesses and nonprofits has yet to award a single grant in the year since its launch, despite having over 100 applications.

New streetlights and sidewalks were installed in 2008 on a portion of Dr. Martin Luther King Drive between Kingshighway and the city boundary at Wellston. Robert Cohen, Post-Dispatch

But a legislative fix is on the way, city officials pledged. A new bill introduced at the St. Louis Board of Aldermen could pave the way for the money to begin flowing to the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The pandemic aid money that funds the program must be allocated by the end of next year.

“We’re not gonna save the world with this one,” said the bill’s sponsor, Alderwoman Shameen Clark Hubbard, who represents a swath of the area the bill is designed to benefit. “But we need to get this one fixed, not just because of the time constraints, but because the people, it’s not fair to them if they’ve already been waiting on this.” 

The St. Louis Development Corp., tasked with administering the program aldermen passed last spring, opened applications June 1, 2022, for the pot of money seeded with federal pandemic aid.

It has delayed awarding the funds because of ambiguity in the bill that authorized the program last year, SLDC Director Neal Richardson said Friday.

He and his staff have pushed for legislative changes that clarify how the agency scores applicants and would allow any business or nonprofit in north St. Louis to qualify while stripping a requirement that applicants must receive support from their alderman.  

“We didn’t have much say in how the first legislation was written,” Richardson said in an interview Friday. “When it landed on our desk, it was like, this is going to be very challenging to implement.”

The legislative tuneup is the latest development in the policy life of a program that has generated controversy since its conception back when the city first began developing ways to use an influx of nearly $500 million in federal pandemic money two years ago. 

The North St. Louis Commercial Corridor Grant program, as it’s called, was billed as a way to support businesses along the main thoroughfares of north city such as Natural Bridge, West Florissant and Dr. Martin Luther King Drive. It was the subject of one of the first political battles of Mayor Tishaura O. Jones’ administration as she cast doubt on the legality of the idea being pushed by her chief rival at the time, former Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed.

And when leaders finally hashed out a compromise, it drew renewed scrutiny after Reed, its chief architect, was indicted along with two aldermen whose wards would have drawn much of the funding. They pleaded guilty to accepting bribes in exchange for official letters of support for tax incentives.

A key requirement in the grant program’s legislation in order to win some of the $37 million? An aldermanic letter of support, a condition the new bill, if passed, would finally scrap. 

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