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2004: A Wasted-Space Odyssey

Sometimes doing good can be worse than doing nothing at all


It's time to take up for the forces of evil again.

Our mortal enemies -- the forces of do-goodness -- recently feted themselves on reaching the halfway point on the road to nowhere under the leadership of St. Louis 2004, the organization that promised to nudge, nurture, nestle and otherwise tongue-bathe this community to "world-class" stature in time for the centennial celebration of the 1904 World's Fair.

Now, St. Louis 2004 is hardly a juicy target, not even for those of us for whom defending depravity and godlessness is something of a way of life. This is, after all, a philanthropic pursuit -- funded primarily out of the largess of the Danforth Foundation -- and it has every right to do as it pleases.

And there's no denying its lofty ideals. The organization headed by former Sen. John (St. Jack) Danforth wants to end racism, rebuild houses, fix health care, uplift education, freshen the air and connect every gosh-darned home in our community with one giant, flower-strewn bicycle path.

So what possibly could be the problem with St. Louis 2004 and its good works? What sort of fiendish cynic would even consider stomping on its cookies and souring its milk?

Well, us, I guess.

Two weeks ago, the RFT published a thorough analysis of the St. Louis 2004 record since its inception in 1996, and the unpleasant reality is that the organization has spent well over $10 million -- almost all of it on handsomely rewarded staffers -- while not even scratching the surface of an "action plan" that Danforth had called "the beginning of the most dramatic revival St. Louis has ever seen."

It simply hasn't happened.

The mission of making the central riverfront the Midwest's "greatest tourist attraction" has instead made that dream the world's "greatest overstated goal." Its noble Safe Places for Kids program, with a 1998 promise of "providing quality after-school programs for every child in the region," only recently materialized, helping perhaps a couple of hundred children.

Its bold plan to help the uninsured obtain insurance coverage, projected to begin in 1998, was a bust. About the only tangible accomplishment has been to launch another task force to study the problem.

St. Louis 2004 promised to issue a "regional report card" to track progress on such quality-of-life areas as racial equality, children's preparation for life, citizen safety and health, economic security and opportunity. Well, the report-card team gets an "F" so far, or at best an "Incomplete."

The natural response, offered by several of the group's board members, was to caution that it's too early to rush to judgment. We should wait to see if utopia breaks out by the end of 2004.

Maybe so, but it's already clear that some early exhortations -- such as erstwhile visionary Andy Craig's dream of a yearlong celebration that would include "a Super Bowl, the NCAA Final Four and the baseball All-Star Game" -- have already been confirmed as failures. All three events have been awarded to other cities.

It's only a matter of time until the rest of St. Louis 2004's dreamiest promises go by the boards as well. What can be expected at the end of the day is simply more of what has been achieved so far: a smattering of smallish betterments.

There will be some new bike paths and park improvements, some new programs to help kids here, to fight crime there. Lots of nice stuff, no doubt, just nothing that resembles the grandiose visions of Danforth and others.

Let's revisit what Danforth said in 1998:

"Here is what St. Louis will become. We will become the leading region of America in the 21st century. We will become a place that excels in creating opportunities for our people, that develops the industries of the future, that nurtures our youth, that attracts the best and the brightest young adults, that enriches our lifestyle and that overcomes the barriers that divide us. We will become the leading region of the 21st century because we love this place and we will accept nothing else."

Yes, those are fine words from a fine and respected fellow, but they are also utterly outside the realm of reality. And therein lies the problem with St. Louis 2004, noble intentions and all: It made promises that it can't deliver.

How many thousands of people have attended hundreds of forums and held hands on task forces believing they were part of something larger than what this deal truly is? How much of the money donated so graciously by the Danforth Foundation and other local givers might have gone more productively to good causes themselves (and not this organization's bloated payroll)?

It would be different if St. Louis 2004 simply promoted itself as a doer of good little deeds and nothing more. But when it purported to spur such an all-encompassing mission of community revival, it set itself and St. Louis up for failure.

St. Louis cannot address its serious long-term policy-and-planning future without looking at the very hardball issues that Danforth and his minions arbitrarily removed from the table before the first community forum was ever held. Danforth handed down the agenda of St. Louis 2004 from on high, not so much by saying what it would address but by decreeing that it wouldn't be dealing with hot-button issues such as a city-county merger, the role of Civic Progress, airport expansion and the like.

That's a great format if you want to skirt controversy but not if you're looking for serious change.

I'll stick with what I wrote here in 1997:

"The bottom line of this is very simple: St. Louis 2004's work is rooted in an unstated and unquestioned assumption that the essential status quo of this community's decision-making elite is sacrosanct. The core beliefs and priorities of the ruling class are not subject to review.

"Meanwhile, in the name of good citizenship, an illusion is created that the little people can scurry around to 'community forums' and make a difference. And those of us who dare criticize the twisted process can easily be dismissed as bitter cynics."

Goodhearted as its intentions may be, St. Louis 2004 has taken up time, resources and space, and they have been wasted.

Maybe those are the forces of evil speaking.

Or maybe that's just reality.

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