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Nations reflects on Bi-State tenure, discusses what’s next

By: Jim Erickson

John Nations

Chesterfield resident John Nations takes a measure of pride in what Bi-State Development has achieved during his tenure as its president and chief executive officer. But he quickly credits people other than himself for those accomplishments and sums up the agency’s successes this way: “I’ve been able to attract a talented team and know that all of our operations are in good hands.”

Nations recently announced plans to leave the Bi-State post this fall.

“It’s no mystery,” he declared. “I’ve been in the job for eight years now and while the Bi-State board and I agree were on a good path, it’s time for some new leadership and new blood.

“The fall of the year is the best time for a transition and I want to work with the board to help make that happen.”

The transition process will involve Nations’ successor getting well acquainted with an organization whose diverse activities include not only the 400-vehicle MetroBus fleet, the MetroLink light rail system and Call-a-Ride para-transit service but also the recreation and tourism assets at the Gateway Arch and riverfront. The St. Louis Downtown Airport across the river in Illinois is another Bi-State operation.

Bi-State serves St. Louis City as well as the Missouri counties of St. Louis, St. Charles and Jefferson and the Illinois counties of St. Clair, Madison and Monroe. Its nine-member board of commissioners includes business and community leaders from both states.

Nations insists he has not determined what the next step in his career path will be but emphasized one point with a smile: “I have absolutely no plans to return to elective politics.”

Nations was mayor of Chesterfield before being recruited to succeed former Bi-State president Bob Baer after leading a successful campaign to win voter approval of a sales tax increase to boost public transportation funding.

Although he rules out seeking elective office, Nations says he has many other personal, civic and legal interests, although he has not yet pursued anything specific.

“It would have been unfair to my commissioners and employees to be out looking before announcing my decision to step down,” he said. “First things first, then let the future take care of itself.”

Nations earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and holds a law degree from Saint Louis University. He practiced law for more than 20 years, specializing in business, economic development and real estate, before joining Bi-State.

In addition to recruiting a good team of people, an achievement he puts at the top of his list, Nations takes pride in:

  • A solid record of operations, as shown by a string of clean audits with no findings of major issues.
  • The recognition of Metro Transit, one of Bi-State’s most visible activities, as a leader in the public transportation industry in efficiency and reliability.
  • The fact that the Gateway Arch has become the most visited national monument west of Washington, D.C.
  • Bi-State’s being viewed as “a regional resource with the ability to address regional issues. Nations pointed to the creation of the St. Louis Regional Freightway and the Bi-State Development Research Institute as illustrations.

The Freightway was established three years ago as the St. Louis region’s go-to source for coordinating freight activity and further developing the area’s resources in that industry. The Institute provides economic development leaders in the area with information and tools for making informed decisions that advance the region.

Nations believes strongly in the value of private sector partnerships and that the Freightway’s successes are a good example.

“It isn’t always about government,” Nations intoned. “When you mobilize the private sector and get everyone on the same page, you can see some great results. Just get the right people around the table, find out what their ideas are and how to form them into a group that can provide momentum.

“Let’s not dwell on things we disagree about. Let’s concentrate on those things we agree on and we can make some progress.”

John Nations, president and CEO of Bi-State Development, [right] talks with Vickie Wade and CEO Dwayne Butler of the St. Louis-based Betty Jean Kerr People’s Health Centers.

In a news release about Nations’ plans to step down, Vincent Schoemehl, former St. Louis mayor and a Bi-State board commissioner, had this to say: “We recruited John eight years ago to provide visionary leadership so that Bi-State Development could fill a critical role in providing regional solutions to regional economic development challenges.

“It is a testament to his leadership that after all of these years, the only thing people complain about relating to Bi-State operations is something [the organization] does not control, which is the policing of MetroLink in Missouri.”

Asked if friction with county government leaders over MetroLink policing had anything to do with his decision to leave Bi-State, Nations said it did not.

“You have to remember Bi-State has a tremendous relationship with the St. Clair County [Illinois] sheriff’s office in their policing activities,” he said. “We just need to have the same type of results throughout the system.”

Nations said he is committed to working with the Bi-State board to have “an open and transparent process” for finding and hiring his successor.

As for the talents and abilities that person will need, Nations thoughtfully considered his response.

“Leadership and management skills first of all,” he replied. “The position will test anyone who is in it. Then, you need an understanding of the region, the different communities and customers we serve, as well as the power of partnerships and how to foster them.

“Definitely, an important part of the leadership skills I mentioned is the ability to communicate effectively with vastly different audiences. A person should have a clear vision for the organization. But you need to be able to communicate that vision and gain buy-in on it.”

Asked what he wanted to be sure people know about Bi-State, Nations concluded, “That it’s a tremendous resource for the region and that it’s doing a fantastic job.”

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