Joe Reagan
Jeremy DeWeese

Education and welcoming new people to the community are the keys to growing a healthy local economy, a regional economic development official said Thursday.

“It is about people first,” said Joe Reagan, CEO of the St. Louis Regional Chamber Growth Association.

He spoke to the Washington 353 Redevelopment Corporation board and others at city hall.

Population Flat

This region produces jobs, but the population growth has been flat, Reagan said. Employers want to be in places where there is a solid work force, Reagan asserted.

The purpose of his organization is to “inspire a greater St. Louis” and by that he means the entire region, including Washington and Franklin County.

The focus of Reagan’s speech was “What does a greater St. Louis mean to the city of Washington?”

“Our aspiration is for this region to be one of the top 10 U.S. regions in prosperity,” Reagan said.

To be successful in a global economy, communities such as Washington must welcome newcomers, including people from foreign countries, Reagan said. Global talent plays a key role in helping industry succeed, he added.

When communities are not intentionally inclusive they run the risk of being unintentionally exclusive, Reagan said.

However, Reagan said Washington has a competitive advantage because it is welcoming and has a nice quality of life.

Embracing Innovation

The community should embrace those who are innovative, he said, adding that major employers often come from entrepreneurs.

The St. Louis region is “the fastest growing metropolitan area in the number of tech job openings in the country,” Reagan said. “If we can fill those jobs, we can break through and have a much more sustained economy for the long term.”

But the region risks losing those jobs if the workers are not available, he said. Those jobs can be moved “overnight,” he added.

“I firmly believe we’ve been in a long-term labor shortage in this country,” said Reagan.

Industries need talent, he said, adding that the jobs of the future will put a high demand on a college education or equivalent.

“(Education) is the surest path to economic prosperity,” Reagan pointed out.

He noted that the recession did not hurt workers with a college education as much as those without degrees. The unemployment rate for college-educated people through the recession was only 4.5 percent, he added.

Bill Miller Sr., president of the 353 Redevelopment Corporation, said he is concerned about there being enough housing to support more people coming to the community.

Mayor Sandy Lucy asked Reagan what can be done to effectively market the community. Reagan said it starts with the residents being ambassadors for the community. Something as small as telling someone on an airplane about how great the area is can help, he said.

Transportation, including trails, air service, roads and rail, plays a key role in economic development, Reagan said. He also is pleased that the region has been able to work together on transportation.

However, Reagan said there are ongoing challenges with transportation funding. The buying power of the gas tax is going down, he added.

Washington Succeeds

Reagan praised the steps Washington has made to build the community. Washington has “embraced the core roots of manufacturing,” he said.

“This city has really focused intentionally on how to build on the assets.” He mentioned the riverfront, industrial development, education and real estate. “That doesn’t happen by accident.”

Neighborhoods and cities can work together to present themselves as a “mosaic,” he added.

People are choosing to live in places such as Washington because of “the lifestyle they are able to have,” Reagan said.