St. Louis development agency to hire consultant to review internal operations

“The operations here have not really been reviewed from an external perspective, at least certainly in the 15 years or so I’ve been here,” Meyer told the agency’s board.

The city’s economic development agency, in the spotlight since the recent federal indictments of three now-former members of the Board of Aldermen, is looking for a consultant to review its management practices.

In its first board meeting since the indictments, the St. Louis Development Corp. on Thursday voted to solicit proposals for a consultant to review its internal operations.

The move has been in the works for some time, said David Meyer, the agency’s attorney.

“The operations here have not really been reviewed from an external perspective, at least certainly in the 15 years or so I’ve been here,” Meyer told the agency’s board.

SLDC Executive Director Neal Richardson pointed out that the agency, in addition to rethinking its approach to development incentives, also has launched new programs funded by the American Rescue Plan Act, including a new housing development initiative and a commercial corridor program.

“We need to make sure we have clear and transparent practices, but also that they are consistent across the organization,” Richardson said.

SLDC staff and board members didn’t mention the indictments of three former members of the Board of Aldermen — Aldermanic President Lewis Reed and Aldermen Jeffrey Boyd and John Collins-Muhammad. The three men have pleaded not guilty to federal charges accusing them of accepting bribes to help a business owner apply for tax abatement and buy a building from the SLDC-managed Land Reutilization Authority.

But Alderman Marlene Davis, who serves on the SLDC board, alluded to them, saying large organizations like SLDC “are going to have some problems at some point. The best thing you can do is to have as many checks and balances as possible.”

She said she respected the agency’s work, and “I respect the fact that you know you want to audit it and determine that you can do it the best way possible.”

The indictments have raised new concerns about aldermanic support typically required for many city functions, including tax abatements and LRA sales, a tradition often referred to as “aldermanic courtesy.” Davis said SLDC’s status as an independent, board-run nonprofit was designed to “keep some of the nonsense away.”

Construction continues on the Steelcote Lofts in the midtown corridor photographed on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021.  Laurie Skrivan, Post-Dispatch

“You could do the business of the city without a lot of interference and politics, so we’re going to have to address that again,” Davis said. “When someone wants to invest their money in a new business, in a major corporate endeavor here in this city, they should not have to deal with unnecessary nonsense.”

When SLDC chooses its consultant, it would be at least the fifth big consulting contract it has inked in the last year. It had a $150,000 contract for an “economic justice action plan,” another $150,000 contract with a firm to review its incentives plus contracts outsourcing its human resources and public relations functions.

“It sounds like we have a lot of consultants,” SLDC Director Greg Shapiro said. “I’ve been on the board for a long time and I’ve seen more consultants in this last year.”

Richardson said the moves have plugged holes in public relations and human resources and would be worth the investment. When it does bring the functions back in house, he said, processes will be in place that a new hire won’t have to develop.

“I anticipate us moving from a consultant approach to having more staff that can move the work forward, but it takes a moment and time for us to actually have an objective eye on evaluating our practices and processes as well as our policies,” Richardson said.

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