How The Onion Hit On an Interesting Truth About Entrepreneurship in St. Louis


The funniest jokes, we submit, expose uneasy truths. Behold this gem from the venerable spoof paper, The Onion, that went up on Friday:

At first, you think they're skewering St. Louis as some kind of entrepreneurial backwater. But that's not why WE laughed.

As it happens, St. Louis is not an entrepreneurial backwater anymore. In fact, the Kauffman Foundation has ranked Missouri sixth nationwide this year for its rate of residents who create businesses (and St. Louis hosted a lot of that growth).

What probably sparked the Onion's joke (and we swear an Onion writer lives here) is the  press coverage of the St. Louis' current attempt to lure start-ups to town.

First, there's Arch Grants -- the business incubator non-profit that recently held a competition and awarded 15 burgeoning companies a grant worth $50,000 each last spring for anchoring their operations downtown.

Then there's Capital Innovators, a tech accelerator that gives the same amount of cash to promising firms in return for a 5-10 percent sliver of ownership.

Here's the funny part: The suggestion that these focused efforts initiatives could ever come out of City Hall.

Everybody in St. Louis wants new businesses, so the pols and pundits argue endlessly about TIFs and tax credits, as if public incentives are the clincher.

Meanwhile, four private businessmen -- attorney Jerry Schlichter, developer Robert Guller, Zack Boyers of US Bancorp, and Joe Schlafly of Stifel Nicolaus -- decide they're tired of watching smart kids leave town. 

So they go around raising funds and drum up $750,000 -- yes, partly from the city and the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis, but mostly from rich individuals and large companies like Advantage Capital Partners, Emerson, Husch Blackwell, Peabody Energy, Polsinelli Shughart, Thompson Coburn, and US Bank.

Then they launch Arch Grants, and in about two years, they bring 15 fresh and promising companies downtown.


Makes you laugh, thinking a politician standing at a podium could pull that off -- especially in a city as fractious as ours.

And that's an uneasy truth. Because if our city's public policy is key to entrepreneurship, then all we have to do is get the right people in office to bring it about. However, if city government policy is but a tiny detail in an economy ruled by powerful people and powerful forces beyond our control, maybe we're all wasting our breath arguing about stuff like tax credits.


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