SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE -- Illinois officials on Monday sweetened their bid to lure a federal spy agency across the Mississippi River with an additional 200 free acres of farmland, more than doubling their offer of open ground in the regional competition for a $1.6 billion plum.
Mark Kern, chairman of the St. Clair County Board, said the new land is in addition to its original offer of 182 acres just north of the Scott Air Force Base runway. The extra acreage is between that site and Interstate 64, all of it surplus property the county bought while developing MidAmerica Airport next to the base. The county now leases the land to farmers.
If the project needs even more land, Kern said, the county has 219 acres more, west of the base, that it could throw in. That parcel does not adjoin the original 182 acres.
Officials on both sides of the river are competing for a new site for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which now operates south of downtown St. Louis and employs about 3,000. A decision from Washington is expected as soon as March.
The agency provides mapping support for the military and intelligence operations. It now operates on the site of the old St. Louis Arsenal, on land next to the Mississippi River that has been a federal installation since 1827. Union forces and Southern sympathizers fought over the arsenal in the early weeks of the American Civil War.
The site has been an intelligence operation since 1952, when the Defense Department moved the World War II aviation mapping office from downtown to the old arsenal grounds.
Dueling political delegations have been holding rallies in support of their preferred spots. On Oct. 28, Mayor Francis Slay, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., touted the city's 100-acre site just north of the old Pruitt-Igoe housing property. Slay said it was critically important for the city to keep the jobs and the earnings tax they pay to the city treasury.
On Monday, it was the Metro East's turn at the microphones. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a native of East St. Louis, joined with Kern and Alan Dunstan, chairman of the Madison County Board, to make their announcement before a warmly receptive audience of about 60 fellow boosters.
They were to have gathered near a display of military aircraft outside the base gate, but rain forced them to take shelter inside the office of Aegis Strategies, a private contractor nearby that does work on the base.
Durbin said Monday, "I understand the other side. They want to fight for their side. But on the merits, we have the stronger location."
He also said he doubts St. Louis can assemble 100 acres north and east of Cass and Jefferson avenues in time for the government to meet its schedule. Durbin noted that more than 300 land parcels lie within the city's proposed site.
"In no way, shape or form can they acquire title to the land that is necessary in time," he said.
Dunstan echoed Durbin's argument in favor of Illinois, saying "If you take the politics out of this decision, this is what's best for the government and best for the nation."
Otis Williams, executive director of St. Louis' development agency, called Kern's offer "a publicity stunt" and said the federal spy agency has made clear to all bidders how much land it wants. Williams said the city originally offered to include the 35 remaining acres of the Pruitt-Igoe site but was told by federal representatives that it wasn't necessary.
"More land is not what they need," Williams said.
The St. Louis Board of Aldermen voted Oct. 22 to allow the city to use eminent domain to assemble its site. About 40 percent of that land is controlled by developer Paul McKee, who has been working for years to revive the near north side. Some residents who live within the area have said they don't want to move.
The Illinois and St. Louis sites have emerged as the apparent top contenders, although federal officials say two St. Louis County options -- in Fenton and the Mehlville area -- are still being reviewed. But St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger endorses the city location.
Kern said the first offering of 182 acres is sufficient for a new agency location. He said the county is offering the extra 200 acres so it can expand as needed. "We can move it right now," he said.
Kern sidestepped reporters' questions about a move's impact on St. Louis, saying, "We need to look at what's best for the NGA."
But he said the county's letter offering the 200 acres will include challenges to some of the points raised by a recent Army Corps of Engineers study of the potential sites.
That study indicated the Illinois site would be the easiest to develop, but noted that keeping the agency in St. Louis would provide major economic benefit to a distressed area, spare the city from losing about $2.2 million in earnings tax from agency workforce and greatly increase daily commutes for many agency workers.
"It was biased in terms of overstating the benefits for St. Louis," Kern said, adding that about 30 percent of the agency's employees already live in the Metro East.
Scott Air Force Base is about 20 miles east of the Gateway Arch.