A $25 million federal grant the Biden administration announced Friday will help jump-start work on an advanced manufacturing innovation center in north St. Louis and pay for workforce training and entrepreneurship programs across the region.
The grant, part of the U.S. Economic Development Agency’s $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge established in the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, was touted as a major win by Greater St. Louis Inc., a regional economic development group.
St. Louis is one of just 21 regional grant winners that received between $25 million and $65 million out of 60 finalists and more than 500 initial applicants.
“We can’t say this enough: when the St. Louis metro works together and speaks with one voice, we succeed,” Greater St. Louis CEO Jason Hall said in a statement. “Working together as a metro is working, and it is how we will win this next decade for St. Louis.”
It’s also another win for the still young Greater St. Louis, formed less than two years ago by the merger of five civic and business groups including Civic Progress, the former St. Louis Regional Chamber and Downtown STL Inc. The group, which supplanted several competing business groups, has also helped land a direct flight to Germany, lure major employers and spur redevelopment of long-vacant downtown buildings.
Greater St. Louis was the formal applicant for the grant, but it worked closely with the St. Louis County-centric St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, which back in 2015 helped develop the initial concept. The advanced manufacturing center is now envisioned as a 140,000-square-foot facility near Ranken Technical College. The Partnership helped form a nonprofit to raise money and operate the advanced manufacturing center, and former Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg is serving as chairman.
Deindustrialization has walloped St. Louis, and the grant application highlighted its disproportionate impact on Black residents as well as the larger region’s struggles with stagnant population and job growth. But even after the industrial decline, a good deal of the sector’s infrastructure and talent remains from the city’s days as a 20th century manufacturing giant. Major employers such as Boeing and General Motors employ thousands, and smaller factories making highly specialized products are prevalent throughout the region.
“We have an extraordinary opportunity here to rebuild on what’s actually a very strong manufacturing ecosystem,” Muilenburg said in an interview. “The fabric of manufacturing here is exceptionally strong, and we have a chance to transform it for the future.”
Bolstering advanced manufacturing can help connect the other two sectors — bioscience and geospatial technology — in what officials are beginning to call the region’s “tech triangle.”
“The St. Louis Tech Triangle coalition will build a national model for inclusive economic growth, building upon the region’s industrial foundation to create a strong, resilient economy for the future,” U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said in a statement.
Muilenburg is involved because he calls St. Louis home — he served as chief of Boeing’s defense business in north St. Louis County before becoming CEO in 2015, and his two children grew up here. He actually commuted to Boeing headquarters in Chicago while he was CEO from 2015 to 2019, he said.
Design work and contractor selection is already underway for the advanced manufacturing center, with construction expected to start in mid-2023 and completion by 2025, Muilenburg said. About $7 million of the grant will go toward construction of the new advanced manufacturing center, which, along with programming, is expected to cost $55 million to $60 million.
Boeing last week announced a $5 million contribution, and Muilenburg said more fundraising to fill the gap is underway, from private, philanthropic and government sources. Some $16.3 million in local matching funds have already been secured on top of the $25 million grant.
“That gives us a very good start,” he said. “We’ve got some other industry commitments that have already been made but not yet announced.”
The center will serve as the future “hub” of the region’s advanced manufacturing ecosystem, backers hope, used for training, research and development and prototyping and production.
The grant funding will be divvied up between the effort’s various partners, including $1 million for training through Rung for Women, $2.5 million for an advanced manufacturing training academy at Southwestern Illinois College and $3 million for a similar training center through St. Louis Community College. There’s $1 million for a pharmaceutical manufacturing program at Cortex, and $3 million for Greater St. Louis and the Economic Development Partnership to build the manufacturing ecosystem. Some $7.5 million will be split among BioSTL, Harris-Stowe, WEPOWER and the Small Business Empowerment Center to promote racial equity in manufacturing entrepreneurship.
The workforce training component is critical, Muilenburg said. Manufacturers here have long cited difficulty filling positions that require more technical skills than the factory jobs of the past.
“There’s no shortage of manufacturing jobs today,” he said. “There’s tremendous, tens of thousands, of unfilled manufacturing jobs, and what we need is the talent.”