Columbia, Dupo partner on development

Columbia Mayor Kevin Hutchinson and Dupo Mayor Ron Dell at the March 16 meeting of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce.
Columbia Mayor Kevin Hutchinson and Dupo Mayor Ron Dell at the March 16 meeting of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce.

Good neighbors help each other out. They can make life better for each other. But rarely do they share in the rewards of their relationship in a way the neighboring communities of Columbia and Dupo are hoping to in a new partnership they are embarking on to bring development to their shared area of the American Bottom.

Members of the Dupo-East Carondelet Chamber of Commerce attended the monthly Columbia Chamber of Commerce meeting March 16 to discuss and learn more about the partnership, which is still in its infancy but already causing a great deal of optimism along the Monroe-St. Clair County line near I-255.

In the early 2000s, Columbia and Dupo each had large-scale developments in the planning stages.

“Basically the look and feel was going to be somewhat of a Chesterfield Valley morphing into an Earth City type of look with some retail, some destination spots, out into light wholesale distribution and light manufacturing,” Columbia Mayor Kevin Hutchinson said of the potential development, Columbia Crossing.

“Everything was going well, we were moving forward, and then we got hit with the economy, we got hit with the levee situation, and everything came to a screeching halt,” Hutchinson said.

The “levee situation” was the decertification of the Mississippi River levees by FEMA. It created the possibility that mandatory flood insurance rates in the area would skyrocket, or insurance would become unobtainable entirely, if the levees weren’t repaired and upgraded. At the time, no one knew for sure if or when that would be done. The levee situation effectively eliminated any traction on the project — as well as on a similar project that had been moving forward in Dupo.

Discovery Business Park, which was awarded federal money to partially fund a new interchange at Davis Street Ferry, was neck-and-neck with Columbia Crossing, at times competing for potential retail and industrial tenants and grant monies.

“We were on a roll, too,” said Dupo Mayor Ron Dell. “We had a developer lined up. As a matter of fact, we even had a builder that wanted to come in, a business that would have created quite a few jobs.”

The competition ended in a draw and momentum stalled when the economic downturn and levee decertification halted both projects in their tracks.

But both situations have changed. The levees have been repaired to a 100-year level of protection and are on their way to a 500-year level. An economic rebound has brought developers back into the fold of interested parties in projects of their type.

“We started kickstarting our program again, Columbia started kickstarting theirs, and Mayor Hutchinson and I got together and we kind of talked and said, ‘You know, this has always been a regional thing. Maybe we could tap into more interest and maybe we can bring more to the table if we joined this together,” Dell said.

Both parties acknowledge many factors must come together for a development of this size to get off the ground.

“You have to have land, you have to have land at the right price, and you have to have a developer willing to come in and spend, literally, hundreds of millions of dollars,” Hutchinson said.

Then there’s the location.

The potential development would be situated in the American Bottom, “probably one of the best kept secrets in the St. Louis area,” according to Dell, when it comes to manufacturing, light industrial and other such commercial business potential.

The location affords easy access to every major type of transportation. It runs along the Mississippi River, one of the primary methods of transportation in the U.S. for goods like grain, coal and oil. It is situated just minutes from Interstates 55/64/70, Interstate 44 and Interstates 255/270. It would also be adjacent to the Union Pacific railyard in Dupo.

“Union Pacific said, ‘We’re going to expand,’” Hutchinson said.

Union Pacific officials said an expansion would spark business and commerce development in the area.

“That was also another reason for us to sit there and say, ‘If Union Pacific is going to be spending millions and millions of dollars expanding their operation, this is definitely going to become a hub of transportation — whether it’s transportation of barge traffic on the river, whether it’s rail traffic here, whether it’s truck traffic,’” he added.

The location is also within 20 minutes of two international airports, Hutchinson said.

“All of that together has really made this area perfect for the next development area in the Midwest,” Dell said.

According to Dell, it is this ease of access to multiple types of transportation that was one of the principal draws of the area the first time around.

The theoretical development won’t be all work and no play. The goal is to also have plenty of retail, lodging, recreation and even convention facilities.

“All that’s obviously going to go in a different area,” Hutchinson said.

But the two communities, even together, can’t do it all. The project will take money, and lots of it, from a variety of places.

“Coming together to do this we can maybe get more notice at the state level and also at the federal level,” Dell said.

“We know that eventually there’s going to be some monies coming down for transportation bills, both from the state… and from the federal government,” Hutchinson said. “We want to make sure that when that starts to come down we’re already out there, we’re already known… We have shown that we’re ready to collectively move forward, not individually.”

And that, Hutchinson said, is what legislators who make decisions about funding want to see — cooperation.

“You don’t see it a lot where two communities realize that apart we might be able to get something done… but together, having two cities, two counties and the support of an entire region, we’ve got a chance of doing something great for the entire region,” Hutchinson said.

The next step is creating an intergovernmental agreement that would make the partnership official and outline parameters.

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