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Shaping West County

Communities that are as large and vibrant as West St. Louis County do not happen by chance. Their development takes countless hours of hard work and dedication by thousands of residents, government officials, developers, philanthropists and business owners – all with one goal.

Still, when we look back over the past 20 years, some names immediately come to mind: Louis S. Sachs, whose vision provided a “mind” for development in Chesterfield • Ed Hassinger, representing MoDOT, who gave “legs” to three major road projects that cut through the county • Michael Staenberg, whose “hands-on” approach to development helped to put Chesterfield on the map following the flood of 1993 • Glenn Koenen, whose “heart-felt” appeals on behalf of Circle Of Concern helped West Countians embrace the local food pantry • Doug Huber, who founded West Newsmagazine and gave a “voice” to these stories and so many more.

Louis Sachs

Louis Sachs

Louis S. Sachs • Sachs Properties

Louis S. Sachs, who passed away in May 2011, began doing business in West St. Louis County in the 1960s, when the area still was largely rural.

But he had a different vision for the area – one of community. Over a 20-year span, Louis [shown at right with a model of Chesterfield Village] helped guide that vision.

In a 2013 interview with West Newsmagazine, Steve Sachs, Louis’ son, said his father began purchasing land in 1967, later developing 1,500 acres of it as Chesterfield Village.

“Dad came out to what was then rural St. Louis County to shape his vision of community,” Steve said, “and I think he did a great job of sticking to it.”

Much of what became Chesterfield institutions – the YMCA, Jewish Community Center,  STAGES St. Louis, Ascension Catholic Church, Faust Park, the Samuel C. Sachs branch of the St. Louis County Library and more, arose from his donations of land and money. He also paid for most of Chesterfield Parkway, “because Dad wanted it to happen sooner rather than later,” Steve said.

Steve said his father held onto his land until he found just the right use, noting that he “turned down tons of offers” to develop his land – even when that meant walking away from a lot of money.

“Everybody was looking to make a fast hit. Dad was the opposite; he was never going to compromise on his vision,” Steve said.

For all he accomplished, Steve said his father “was pretty hard on himself” in that he would always question whether a project was good enough.

“I wish he’d been more the type of guy who would pat himself on the back a little bit, because he really deserved that,” Steve said. “I mean he did accomplish something incredible.”

Ed Hassinger

Ed Hassinger •  MoDOT

For much his professional life, Ed Hassinger has been at the center of efforts to upgrade the way people and goods travel and connect, particularly in St. Louis and St. Charles counties.

Hassinger, who became chief engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation [MoDOT] in 2013, served as the department’s St. Louis district engineer for 12 years after stints as a traffic, bridge maintenance and assist district engineer.

He was there when ideas like turning Hwy. 141 into a major north-south thoroughfare, the Page-Olive connector, the Page Avenue extension into St. Charles County, and three new bridges across the Missouri River were all in their embryonic stages. Hassinger helped to shepherd those ideas into reality, but he doesn’t take the credit. They were projects nurtured by many others besides him, he said.

“I was in the middle of most of it, but I want to make sure that, since you’re talking about it, [people know that] a lot of this gets done by a lot of people,” Hassinger said.

All of these improvements happened because the state and local city and county governments were able to share resources and cooperate, he said. It happened through mutual support, financial contributions by local governments and a willingness on behalf of MoDOT and local governments to bend, he said.

“A lot of it is attitude, you have to have the attitude that you want to do this and that government should cooperate,” Hassinger  said. He noted that MoDOT had great partners.

“These are not easy things to do. Sometimes it takes a lot of work. You have to sell your constituency that this is a right thing [and] that’s not an easy thing for a local government to do,” Hassinger  said. “I credit a lot of those mayors in those cities and counties for kind of stepping into the breach and saying this is the right thing to do.”

The result is a new transportation infrastructure that links north and south St. Louis County with the I-64 corridor and St. Charles County.

A new Hwy. 141 and Page-Olive connector project, opened in 2012. Hwy. 141 now extends 25 miles, from I-55 in the south to Hwy. 370 in the north. That infrastructure also includes new bridges across the Missouri River.

“That was a pretty well-orchestrated plan,” Hassinger said.

Some of the same types of projects might not happen today due to budget constraints, according to MoDOT officials.

“Our flexibility is not as good as was [in the] mid-2000s before the recession hit and crushed all our revenue sources,” Hassinger said.   “I’m not saying it’s not going to happen, but it’s making it harder.”

Michael Staenberg

Michael Staenberg • The Staenberg Group

On July 31, 1993, a section of agricultural levee gave way, filling 4,000 acres of Chesterfield Valley – known then as Gumbo Flats – with up to 15 feet of muddy Missouri River floodwater.

The view from the top of the hill on then Hwy. 40 near the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel was of a giant brown expanse of water, dubbed “Chesterfield Lake” at the time. The best way to reach submerged businesses was by boat.

Many of those businesses went under when the water went down. To spur redevelopment, the city of Chesterfield marketed the valley as “Chesterfield of Dreams.”

Reality began to spring from those dreams when Michael Staenberg, president of the Staenberg Group,  sought to develop the Valley.

Now, more than 20 years later, Chesterfield Valley is protected by the 500-year Monarch-Chesterfield Levee. Once farmers’ fields, the area now features office buildings, two outlet malls, and Staenberg’s Chesterfield Commons, which is said to be the country’s largest outdoor retail mall, featuring more than two million square feet of space.

“It all kind of all came together,” he said.

When asked what drew him to the area, he said, “It was the land and the tenants … the tenants asked me to find a location for them.”

Extremely important for the development, he said, was Chesterfield’s decision to put a tax increment district [TIF] in place – one that provided $55 million to federal officials to rebuild roads and upgrade the levee.

“Our TIF was the fastest paid back ever – it was paid back in five years,” Staenberg said. “It was what TIFs were meant to be. It was used for public improvements, it was not used for land acquisition; it was used for roads and infrastructure.”

The end result is a retail center that pulls from St. Charles County, North St. Louis County, and the Clayton area – from Clayton to Chesterfield is a 17-minute drive, he said.

The Chesterfield Commons also may be a factor in nearby home building and large companies moving to the Chesterfield area, Staenberg said.

“Corporations like Monsanto and people like that want to be in areas like this because you have retail and restaurants out here,” he said.

Doug Huber and Glenn Koenen

Glenn Koenen [right] accepts a donation on behalf of Circle Of Concern from Doug Huber, founder of West Newsmagazine.

Glenn Koenen • Circle of Concern

Glenn Koenen said need is not commonly associated with places like West St. Louis County. But Koenen, the long-time executive director of Circle Of Concern Food Pantry, knows that poverty always has been there and can be as close as losing a job or getting sick no matter a person’s address.

“We used to joke at Circle that the most frequent line we heard was, ‘I never thought I would be asking for help,’” Koenen said.

In addition to food, Circle provides emergency assistance and other programs to residents in need who live in the Parkway, Rockwood and Valley Park school districts.

These calls for help in recent years largely stem from changes in the economy. Starting in 2008, Koenen said the agency saw people with master’s degrees, teaching certificates, MBAs at the food pantry’s front door because of changes beyond their control.

“They did everything right and they still came up on the short end,” Koenen said. “That’s a reason why you have to have a group like Circle Of Concern, even in a generally prosperous area like West County where nobody expects to be poor.”

Koenen retired in 2012 after 17 years at the nonprofit.

“I think over the last 20 years or so [that]people have become more understanding that there are families that are struggling in their communities,” Koenen said. “I think one thing that Circle did well was reminding people that we didn’t have the concentration of poverty in West County that other regions had, but if you looked at the area as a whole there were still an awful lot of people – thousands of people a month – that were coming to Circle Of Concern needing help.”

People have been generous, Koenen said.

Circle launched its capital campaign to build a replacement office in Valley Park in 2008, just before the onset of the recession. The building was paid off by 2010, he said.

Though retired, Koenen continues to work for a number of nonprofit and civic organizations and remains active with Empower Missouri, chairing its hunger task force. He also currently is running for the Missouri House, 95th district seat.

“There are intangible awards [from community service] that you know at the end of the day you’ve made a difference,” he said.

Doug Huber [right] presents John Nations, then mayor of Chesterfield, with a Best of West award.

Doug Huber • West Newsmagazine

To Doug Huber, a good story mattered.

Stories – telling them, listening to them, relating to them, using them to sell or inform – always was part of his professional and personal lives.

He worked for years in local radio, selling advertising. He went on to own and operate the Broadcast Center, which trained radio and television professionals. For a time, he also owned 770-AM WEW radio.

By 1996, the idea of sharing stories and providing useful information to the residents of West County became the basis of West Newsmagazine.

His wife, Sharon, who worked alongside him at the Broadcast Center and at the newsmagazine, is now its publisher. Doug passed away on April 12, 2012, at age 59.

Sharon said the idea for the newsmagazine was not just to provide information to people about where they lived.  “It was the news people were talking about around town, at hockey practice and at the office, but nobody else was covering. It was really understanding the pulse of West County,” she said.

From its beginning, the paper comprehensively covered community news and people – schools, boards of aldermen, civic events, community festivals, and high school sports – and featured cover stories that profiled personalities and major societal and local issues that touched those neighborhoods.

West Newsmagazine also was always a place where area readers could find a conservative point of view in editorials and columns, such as those by Thomas Sowell, filling a niche neglected by other St. Louis area newspapers and media.

Sharon said her husband [shown below with then-Chesterfield Mayor John Nations] grew to love being a publisher and being an integral part of the community.

“He loved local business,” Sharon said. “He loved talking to and helping other business owners.”

But certain tenets never changed, certain beliefs were never compromised.  The business was a reflection of the best values of the communities it served. Staff members often stayed for much of their careers, with several remaining from those first chaotic days in 1996 when the notion of the newsmagazine became a hard reality.

“Above all, Doug was a family man. The people he worked with, he saw them really as part of a family,” Sharon said. His passions were St. Louis Blues hockey, Cardinals baseball, pinball and most importantly, his wife and sons, Max and Jack.

Family and people – and more than a touch of dry humor.

One day he came into the office and told the sales staff they were not allowed to use their computers that day. Get out in the community and talk to people, he ordered. There were stories to tell and hear and relationships to be formed. To Doug, those relationships were more important than digital efficiency.

Sharon tells about Doug typically getting grumpy about their always chaotic social calendar, however, once they walked in the door his attitude always changed.

“He would sit with people and start telling stories and listening to their stories and just have a wonderful time,” she said. “He loved stories.”

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