Top Secret Federal Agency To Come Out of the Shadows With New St. Louis Campus
admin / October 2021
The Nearly $2 Billion Campus Is Part of the City’s Quest To Become a Tech Town
For decades, St. Louis and its image has been shaped by the local industries that dominate it — big brands such as beermaker Anheuser-Busch Co. and agricultural powerhouse Monsanto.
One big employer isn’t as well known, but its future could hold the key to burnishing the prospects of a proud Midwest city that has seen better days. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, NGA for short, is building a new $2 billion campus that locals hope will pull the Missouri city into the 21st century and rejuvenate the north St. Louis area.
NGA has toiled in secrecy at an old military arsenal in the southern part of St. Louis since World War II. The Defense Department agency is planning to relocate 3,150 employees to the new 712,000-square-foot campus once it is completed in 2025. https://flo.uri.sh/visualisation/7562589/embed?auto=1
The new 97-acre campus marks a coming-out party of sorts, allowing the agency to emerge from the shadows and anchor a quest by St. Louis to become the “geospatial tech capital of the world.”
The agency’s chief mission is to gather insight and intelligence from maps, satellite imagery or almost anything that measures time and space. Its primary customer has long been the spy agencies, but its work also benefits first responders, weather forecasters and, really, anyone who navigates the world with a mobile phone.
It’s that broader work that has supporters in St. Louis excited that the center’s geospatial expertise could help the city create its own version of Silicon Valley, and move on from a manufacturing past. After all, there has been $171.7 billion invested across the globe, including $76 billion in the United States, into geospatial apps over the past decade, bringing location-based services to the masses through ride-hailing, on-demand delivery and micro-mobility, according to venture fund Space Capital.
“We’re trying to make this the silicon prairie,” said Mark Tatgenhorst, who retired from NGA in 2019 after 33 years with the agency and now is involved with fostering geospatial tech startups.
The new campus and its public unveiling is part of the agency’s efforts to commercialize data as well as foster tech development in the private sector in St. Louis.
“We now want to be in the open,” said Robert Cardillo, a former NGA director who picked the location of the new NGA campus.
Local leaders are betting the highly visible campus will attract jobs and fill empty properties nearby through further redevelopment of the area.
Other cities have seen significant growth from their proximity to a large government presence. Huntsville, Alabama, grew over decades after the Army and NASA established rocket operations there and, more recently, when the Air Force chose it for its new Space Command headquarters. Dayton, Ohio, has Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the Wright Brothers Institute, a center for developing and commercializing tech with the Air Force Research Laboratory that opened in 2002. The Dayton Development Coalition estimated that the air base has an economic impact of $15.54 billion.
“Dayton is the model for us,” said Patty Hagen, executive director of the T-Rex entrepreneurial center that incubates early-stage tech startups in downtown St. Louis. T-Rex is about 2 miles away from the future NGA campus.
The Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit commercial real estate research organization, this year named St. Louis a backbone market that is reinventing its industrial past with a focus on tech. Other backbone markets include Cleveland; Detroit; Hartford, Connecticut; Milwaukee; and Providence, Rhode Island.
“Backbone markets are slower growing but benefit from moderate housing and business costs,” ULI said in its 2022 Emerging Trends in Real Estate report.
Tech clusters tend to form in markets with a large concentration of high-tech companies and universities with the most tech degree graduates, according to a tech talent report by real estate brokerage CBRE, and that has been a challenge for St. Louis. The city has about 55,000 tech workers, among the lowest out of the 50 U.S. and Canada markets in the CBRE report with more than 50,000 tech workers and representing only 4.2% of the city’s total workforce. The city only added 4,950 tech jobs between 2016 and 2020, growing its tech labor pool 9.9%, according to CBRE.
The lack of jobs may be contributing to a brain drain, according to CBRE, because 9,500 people graduated with tech degrees from local colleges such as Washington University, Saint Louis University, University of Missouri at St. Louis over a five-year period but the city only added tech jobs for about half of those new grads, meaning they likely moved elsewhere to put their tech degree to use.
Making a Splash
A reenergized and more public NGA could change that. Long ago, cameras carried by pigeons or hot air balloons were used to help map the ground. Today, it largely involves airplanes, drones and satellites sending back images and location data, building the foundation of many consumer services.
Former NGA Director Cardillo prefers to call it location science.
Uber, Grubhub, Waze, Garmin and other applications use data from global positioning satellites for mapping and geolocating.
Commercial uses for the technology grew out of government development from the early 1990s in the super-secret intelligence world in which the U.S. military launched spy satellites and flew high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. A decade ago, for example, NGA pinpointed the compound where Osama bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan using highly sophisticated imaging technology.
NGA’s existing St. Louis campus is near Anheuser-Busch InBev’s brewery in St. Louis’ Soulard neighborhood. By design, the NGA hid in the shadows.
“I didn’t advertise what I did,” Tatgenhorst said.
The windowless campus comprises 15 buildings in converted warehouses on 27 acres on an arsenal operated by the U.S. Air Force that dates back to 1827.
Cardillo said additions to the main NGA building over the years turned it into something out of a “Harry Potter” movie with full floors mixed with half floors and three-quarter floors. “It’s a crappy building,” he said.
Plus, the location made difficult the task of putting in anti-terrorism protections required in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.
NGA began evaluating a new St. Louis location a dozen years ago while NGA’s main headquarters was under construction with a modern campus in the Springfield, Virginia, suburb of Washington, D.C. Finished in 2010, the headquarters was built to be off-limits to the public on purpose.
“That made sense in those times when the government still had a relatively monopoly on the tech,” Cardillo said. He noted that is no longer true today and will be even less so in the future, which is why NGA West will be “open from the get-go.”
The new NGA West campus will have about 20% unclassified space and 20% flexible space; the remaining 60% will be classified.
St. Louis supporters hope the new project accelerates efforts to turn around a city whose long decline mirrored other manufacturing centers in the Midwest. Much of their optimism stems from recent progress in the area.
People have started moving back into the city, just not at a rate yet to create a net gain for St. Louis. But it’s been enough to feed redevelopment efforts St. Louis officials started in the downtown area after the state approved an historic rehabilitation tax credit in 1998.
The city implemented a downtown action plan in 1999 to guide redevelopment, which St. Louis has estimated to have lured $6 billion over two decades. In December 2020, the St. Louis Planning Commission replaced the 1999 plan with a new one to guide downtown development through 2030.
Much of the redevelopment started with the former shoe factories along Washington Avenue. Lofts apartments and commercial space have filled buildings along what was once known as “Shoe Street, USA” because it supposedly boasted more shoe manufacturers than any place in the world.
In downtown, the St. Louis Cardinals replaced the former Busch Stadium with a new one in 2006. The team’s owners joined up with Baltimore-based The Cordish Cos. to develop Ballpark Village next to the stadium. The first phase of entertainment, bars and restaurants was completed in 2014 after development was delayed by the Great Recession.
Ballpark Village’s second phase is underway and includes the first new office building to open in downtown St. Louis since 1989, a Live! by Loews hotel, a Onelife Fitness location and a 29-story, 297-unit apartment tower called One Cardinal Way.
Even with the pandemic, the apartment tower has leased up and now is full. “We have a waiting list,” said Mike LaMartina, chief revenue officer for Ballpark Village.
Nearby, a former St. Louis Community College building next to a Tums factory still in operation is slated to be converted into 80 apartments with retail on the ground floor. Dan Dokovic, managing principal of locally based Bamboo Equity Partners, said preleasing started in September with opening planned by April next year.
Midtown St. Louis has garnered its share of interest. Two apartment towers are planned for City Foundry STL, a redevelopment of a former manufacturing plant in Midtown that opened with a food hall in August.
“Pockets are filling with apartments” around the urban core, said John Warren, a broker with Cushman & Wakefield’s St. Louis office.
Furniture maker Ikea opened an urban store in Midtown near Saint Louis University in 2015, its large bright blue and yellow Ikea sign marking a stark contrast next to the operating grain elevator next door.
Apartment vacancy in downtown St. Louis is 15.4%, and falling, and rents have been rising, posting 2.1% annual growth, according to CoStar data. Central West End vacancy is at 8.1% and dropping as well. Annual rent growth there is 3.3%.
By comparison, the largest apartment market located just outside the city limits in St. Louis County, which includes the county seat of Clayton, has 4.3% vacancy and annual rent growth of 9.1%. The area’s 26,565 units are roughly 4,000 more than downtown St. Louis and the city’s Central West End combined.
In between Midtown and Downtown, a Major League Soccer Stadium is under construction that will be the home field for the city’s first professional soccer team, which is owned by the Taylor family of St. Louis-based Enterprise Rent-A-Car and Jim Kavanaugh, a former professional indoor soccer player and CEO of World Wide Technology, also based in St. Louis.
The stadium is rising next to Union Station, a train station built in 1894 that was converted into a hotel and a shopping center in 1985 during an earlier spurt of urban revival. MetroLink, the St. Louis area’s light-rail system, runs under it. A 200-foot-tall Ferris wheel opened next to Union Station in 2019.
A few blocks away, the city’s National Hockey League team the St. Louis Blues play in Enterprise Center, which opened in 1995.
Budding Tech Sector
Amid all the redevelopment, a tech sector began to take shape in 2002 when a 200-acre innovation hub called the Cortex was founded by local universities and organizations in the Central West End neighborhood.
Cortex has since grown into what the Brookings Institution, a 105-year-old research think tank based in Washington, D.C., has dubbed a best practice for urban innovation districts along with ones in Austin, Texas; Seattle, Washington; and Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to MIT, putting St. Louis in the company with the nation’s top tech hubs.
Cortex is home to a significant number of companies that develop and use geospatial tech including Booz Allen Hamilton and Microsoft.
Following Cortex, the T-Rex entrepreneurial center opened a decade ago in several floors of a former furniture store along Washington Avenue to help early-stage companies grow and send them off into nearby real estate.
“We want them to leave” to make room for others, said Hagen, T-Rex’s executive director. “We are not designed to fit 60 people.”
In January 2020, T-Rex opened what it called the Geospatial Innovation Center in 16,000 square feet with $5 million from grants and private companies. In late July, NGA opened Moonshot Labs at T-Rex in 12,000 square feet of unclassified shared workspace meant to foster collaboration between government and tech workers, a first such effort for the agency. Leidos, a major defense contractor, is involved along with industry players Esri and Maxar Technologies.
The Globe Building, a block away from T-Rex, was built in 1933 as a freight and passenger terminal before the now-defunct St. Louis Globe-Democrat newspaper occupied it for decades. It, too, has become a place for geospatial companies. A sensitive compartment information facility is being set up in the building for classified military work.
The Globe Building sits across the street from the former St. Louis Dispatch building that payment processing company Square, founded by St. Louis natives Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Square co-founder Jack McKelvey, opened during the summer. Square’s new office at 900 North Tucker comprises 225,000 square feet and has room for 1,000 employees, making it the technology company’s largest outside of its headquarters in San Francisco.
Beyond the tech companies setting up shop, local leaders know there needs to be a pipeline of educated workers for St. Louis to become the leader in geospatial tech.
“Part of our mission is workforce development,” said Tatgenhorst, program director at the Geospatial Innovation Center.
Diversity is another key in an industry with little diversity. In July, T-Rex joined with Harris-Stowe State University, a historically Black public institution, to open the GeoHornet Lab within the T-Rex space to focus on education and career development in geospatial tech. Gateway Global, a training firm located in T-Rex, has a program for teenagers to get geospatial and related certifications.
“This sounded interesting, unique and engaging,” said Kenneth Webb, who graduated from public charter KIPP St. Louis High School in June and started the training class in July. “I have wanted to do something in the math space.”
Webb got a job this Fall before entering college in the Spring, working part-time at Gateway Global on projects related to trade and security, said Zekita Armstrong Asuquo, Gateway Global’s CEO, in an email.
“We have been working with Kenneth on both a career and academic pathway plan to help keep him on track,” Asuquo said. “The majority of young Americans that we serve in urban and rural communities all have that same attitude — skills and work first, then a full academic plan. It is important to remember that they are under-resourced and need to be employed with a living wage to survive.”
North St. Louis Plans
NGA’s new campus represents another step in St. Louis’ revival, and there’s much to do.
Thieves have turned neighborhood structures into skeletons after pilfering old bricks from the buildings. Weeds, brush and trees have nearly consumed many and others have been gutted by fires.
“You have to close your eyes and think of a blank canvas,” Cardillo said.
A former large segregated public housing development called Pruitt-Igoe opened in north St. Louis in 1954 on a site next to the future NGA campus. The development consisted of 33 buildings, each standing 11 stories tall. Pruitt-Igoe became a “world-class failure” when the property couldn’t maintain the necessary occupancy to support itself, among other factors, said Andrew Weil, executive director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis, historic preservation consulting organization. By 1976, all Pruitt-Igoe buildings were wiped from the site, leaving the space vacant ever since.
What happens around the future NGA campus could depend in large part on local real estate developer Paul McKee who owns about 1,500 acres in north St. Louis, including the former Pruit-Igoe land.
McKee’s grand vision for the area has been in the works for years and includes an innovation district with more than 1.7 million square feet of real estate spread equally between villages for geospatial intelligence and healthcare as part of what he calls an $8.1 billion NorthSide Regeneration plan.
Ponce Health Sciences University School of Medicine, based in Puerto Rico, announced in late August that it received accreditation to build a medical school next to the NGA campus. The school, a partnership with New Orleans-based Mercy Hospital System that has two hospitals in St. Louis, already has been operating in downtown St. Louis.
But there’s skepticism over McKee’s plans because most of his development experience is in the suburbs and because of a lack of progress redeveloping the north St. Louis land. He’s been in a legal battle with the city after it took back a tax-increment financing deal he received in 2009 because of relatively little action on the redevelopment.
Weil said his concern, one echoed by others, is that McKee is an impediment to redevelopment rather than a catalyst and that his proposed projects could end up looking more like suburban development that is out of place in an urban environment.
“I have zero confidence that McKee has the folks who know how to do it right,” Weil said.
Some of McKee’s suburban projects include NorthPark, a commercial and industrial development, built during the mid-2000s in north St. Louis County that became home to the headquarters for pharmaceutical benefit management company Express Scripts. And WingHaven, a mixed-use development in St. Charles County, attracted the headquarters for MasterCard’s global and technology operations.
Calls to McKee seeking comment were returned by Dick Fleming, an economic development consultant. Speaking on McKee’s behalf, Fleming dismissed the criticism, noting it was McKee who sold the city the land for the campus. Had McKee held on to the real estate, NGA’s 3,100 jobs might be headed somewhere else.
“This guy put his money where his mouth is,” Fleming said.
For the Record
NGA’s new campus is being managed by the Kansas City District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and being built by the McCarthy-HITT joint venture, which includes St. Louis-based McCarthy Building Cos. and Falls Church, Virginia-based Hitt Contracting. The design-build team also includes architecture firm Gensler, Kansas-based Black & Veatch and Herdon, Virginia-based Akima LLC. The land is owned by the U.S. Air Force.
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