For a better St. Louis

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I read the following article “Success is an ‘us’ thing, SLU president says” from St. Louis Post Dispatch a week ago. The President of St. Louis University talked about problems and hopes of St. Louis community. I have been in this city (oh, more accurately county) for more than 5 years, and have witnessed some of the problems he mentioned. For example, there are many small municipalities in St. Louis county. While there is tradition in it (such as the Kirkwood & Webster Grove rivalry), I think it also means inefficiency in governance, public services, and development planning. As a region, St. Louis has lost many corporations headquarters in recent years. Inerestingly enough, it appears the Chinese immigrants population is bucking the trend. Maybe it’s a sign of revitalization?

The region’s fiefdoms, polarization and overall “myopic attitude” are holding St. Louis back from greatness, the Rev. Lawrence Biondi told an auditorium full of community leaders and friends Wednesday.

The crowd was on hand to honor Biondi as the 2005 Citizen of the Year.

“The future success of our St. Louis region is not a Republican versus Democrat thing,” said Biondi, who is president of St. Louis University. “It is not a city versus county thing. It is not a black versus white thing. It is an us thing. All of us – you and me – together.”

A committee of past winners selected Biondi for the annual award sponsored by the Post-Dispatch. Donald Suggs, publisher of the St. Louis American and last year’s winner, introduced the charismatic, visionary, strong-willed and sometimes controversial Biondi at the ceremony on SLU’s campus.

Nearly a dozen past winners sat on stage as Biondi explained that he had come to love St. Louis over the years but that different factions too often seemed at odds with one another.

“In my opinion, it is one of the key reasons why the St. Louis area continues to suffer from an inferiority complex – a feeling that we are just never going to be as great as we think we could be, or as great as we know we should be.”

That divisiveness can have catastrophic consequences, he said, recalling post-Katrina New Orleans and how a lack of coordination there “doomed that city.”

“In the face of a similar disaster, would we as a region fare any better?” he asked.

Biondi has been at the helm of SLU since 1987. During his tenure, the university has put more than $500 million toward physical improvements and expansions to help transform and beautify the physical campus, and in the process, spur a resurgence in midtown St. Louis. Enrollment, the endowment, and endowed faculty chairs have increased under his watch, as well.

On Wednesday, Biondi suggested that the city and region come together behind a common vision using the model of a “three-legged stool” – the legs being government, business and higher education.

He then listed a number of problems that the three sectors could help solve, including: improving the St. Louis Public Schools, producing a better mass transit system, revitalizing Lambert Field, attracting and retaining businesses, and embracing diversity by better integrating neighborhoods and the work force.

“The old political and geographic divisions have got to end,” he said. “We as a region must realize that we all rise or fall together. The time has come for all of us to work together without worrying about who gets the credit for our small business successes.”

He also shared some of his dreams for the city: a lively riverfront with a beautiful marina, a more vibrant downtown, a biotechnology hub.

“Most of all I would like to see the day when we are no longer divided by whether we live in the city or the county or in the Metro East. That we are all simply St. Louisans.”

In a light point in the speech, Biondi pointed out that his mother, who was sitting in the front row, is 98. His father lived to the age of 98. Biondi is 67.

“So, ladies and gentlemen, I have very, very good genes, and I plan to be here stirring things up in St. Louis for a very, very long time,” he said.

The audience laughed. But those who know Biondi’s drive and conviction might surmise that he wasn’t joking.

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