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Leaders gathered for Bi-State Development meeting confirm its role as regional economic catalyst

By: Jim Erickson

John Nations, president and CEO of Bi-State Development, with St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson

Bi-State Development used the term “catalyst” as the theme for its recent annual meeting, emphasizing the role the agency plays in promoting economic growth in the seven-county area the organization serves in Missouri and Illinois.

Following up with specifics on why the region is ripe for growth was a parade of speakers representing local government, banking and business interests.

A panel discussion held during a session conducted by the St. Louis Regional Freightway, a Bi-State entity formed two years ago to bolster the area’s reputation as a freight hub, drew special attention.

The organization has coined the phrase “The Ag Coast of America” to describe a 15-mile stretch of the Mississippi River that runs through the St. Louis area. That section boasts the river’s highest level of barge handling capacity in terms of inland transfer facilities for grain, fertilizer and other agricultural products.

The facilities provide swift transfer of grain from trucks and unit trains to barges headed to the Port of New Orleans for export. Similarly, fertilizer and other farm production inputs shipped upstream to the St. Louis area by barge quickly can be transferred to trucks and railcars for distribution throughout the nation’s agricultural heartland.

St. Louis is the northernmost shipping point on the Mississippi that is ice-free and doesn’t require barges to go through locks needed on the river farther north.

The U.S. is the world’s largest exporter of corn and ranks second in soybeans, with much of those commodities produced in the region where rail and highway transportation networks funnel through the St. Louis area.

Major players in the international grain trade are among those with operations along the “Ag Coast,” including Cofco, a China-owned firm that established its presence last year in an effort to buy grain more directly at a supply source. China is “a monster buyer” and its demand is “unfathomable,” observed David Jump, CEO of American Milling LP in Cahokia and a participant on the Freightway panel.

The world grain trade has grown in volume as disposable income in developing nations has increased. U.S. exports also have grown. However, the nation’s slice of the bigger sales pie actually has become smaller, said Brian Burke of John Stewart and Associates, a financial trading firm with an office in St. Louis. At least part of the explanation is that competing nations are investing heavily in infrastructure improvements that enhance their competitive position in the world marketplace.

Likewise, the St. Louis Regional Freightway has identified a number of key infrastructure projects – to improve the area’s ability to move agricultural products, as well as other goods, through the area more efficiently – and actively is seeking support for them.

While many residents may seem far removed from agriculture and its economic impact, jobs in the tens of thousands are directly or indirectly related to the ag industry in the St. Louis area, according to Bi-State estimates.

In his report, Bi-State’s President and CEO John Nations reviewed progress made in activities the agency oversees – included were the Freightway, Bi-State’s Research Institute, the Gateway Arch partnership with the National Park Service, the St. Louis Downtown Airport and Metro Transit.

James Bullard, president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, presented a detailed review of how the St. Louis Metropolitan Statistical Area [MSA] compares economically with other such areas throughout the nation. Among other things, he noted that recent research has shown the St. Louis area ranks high on the list of larger communities nationwide in its housing affordability. When comparing personal income with costs of living, St. Louis’ standard of living is higher than about 94 percent of the MSAs in the nation, he observed.

“This is a good set of numbers for St. Louis that I think highlights how well this region really does and brings into stark relief the high standard of living that exists in this part of the country,” Bullard stated.

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