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Hartmann: Michael Neidorff Snags the Kroenke

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Envelope, please.

It’s a great honor to present Centene CEO Michael Neidorff with the first-ever Stan Kroenke Civic Achievement Award for his contributions to the demise of the St. Louis region.

Neidorff spent much of this wonderful year of 2020 trashing St. Louis on the national business stage. First there was his announcement in July that Centene would be building a new $1 billion headquarters complex in Charlotte, North Carolina. His message to anyone who would listen: We’re sick and tired of St. Louis’ crime problem, and we’re not going to take it anymore.

(And, by the way, that $460 million in corporate welfare bribes in North Carolina had nothing to do with the decision to move to paradise.)

Bookending that speciousness in December, Neidorff doubled down by announcing his company’s intentions to weasel out of its 2016 commitment to build a third office tower in Clayton. Why welch on the deal now? You guessed it: that intolerable crime problem that presumably must make it too dangerous to venture out into Clayton.

(And, by the way, the changing economic realities brought on by the pandemic had nothing to do with the company’s decision to dishonor commitments made four years ago in the city of Clayton.)

Neidorff earned his Kroenke. For whatever reason, he decided he needed a fig leaf for corporate decisions that hold unpleasant ramifications for the region. But rather than man up and admit he was thinking of his company’s bottom line — this is capitalism, after all — Neidorff just crushed St. Louis’ economic development efforts by distorting an already unfair national image problem.

St. Louis has plenty of woes. Coming to grips with the city’s tragic homicide crisis ought to be its top priority. But the region as a whole has nothing more than an average crime rate compared to others, including that mecca of Charlotte. Suburbs like Centene’s home of Clayton are about as safe as it gets.

Sadly, though, it matters what a fellow like Neidorff says out loud on the national business stage. He has built a great career, and when he does something like publicly attack St. Louis, his peers can’t help but take notice. If Neidorff whines about crime in St. Louis, why would they need to ask follow-up questions about the safety of his corporate fortress?

Neidorff has a fine legacy in the St. Louis region. He built Centene from scratch into an amazing juggernaut involved in managing health care for roughly one in fifteen Americans to the tune of more than $100 billion revenues. Not incidentally, Neidorff has been one of the most philanthropic members of the community, giving time and vast amounts of money to a wide range of great causes.

But that presents an uneasy civic question: Do a company’s contributions to support a community grant it a permanent license to damage that community?

Neidorff is stress testing that question. This man’s chutzpah and hypocrisy are boundless. He has repeatedly used his political clout to obtain unneeded corporate tax welfare on the backs of schoolchildren and taxpayers only to turn around — with no apparent self-awareness — and bemoan the sad state of public education and government services as they hurt his company’s ability to attract talent to St. Louis.

Centene is entitled to make its corporate decisions out of self-interest. But the company is not entitled to its own set of facts twisting the context of those decisions.

As a national giant with fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders the world over, it’s common sense that Centene would diversify its corporate facilities to the likes of Sacramento, where it has a West Coast headquarters, and Charlotte. Moves like that help it attract a broader talent and increase national visibility, as well as allow it to drink from the public trough through shameless corporate welfare (a.k.a. “incentives”).

Neidorff needn’t apologize for not adding 6,000 new jobs to the 5,000 it already has here. That’s just sound business practice. But to pretend that all this was motivated by concerns over crime is pathetic.

It was bad enough that St. Louis had to endure this churlishness last summer when Neidorff had the unmitigated gall to pretend that the decision to move to Charlotte was anything more noble than a sound business decision. Folks here could have also done without hearing about what a paradise Charlotte offered when in fact it held the most relevant title: “highest bidder.”

Neidorff had the audacity at the time to ignore that background as he pompously issued his “wake-up call” to the same business community in which he presumably had been a leader. It was really nauseating.

In that vein, Centene’s decision to renege upon its 2016 commitment to build a third tower in Clayton — with the help of the obligatory and unneeded corporate welfare — is just that: a decision to renege on a commitment. Nothing fancy to see here: The world’s changed. The third tower was to be anchored by a hotel and feature a large auditorium, retail shops and lots of office space. Does that sound like such a great idea today?

One can hardly blame Centene for not having foreseen the COVID-19 pandemic in this context. It most certainly changed the math with regard to developments of this nature, pretty much in every respect with regard to this particular project. But saying “never mind” is quite different than inventing some preposterous rationalization for bailing from a prior commitment. How about a little honesty rather than trashing St. Louis — again — with a bunch of nonsense?

Let’s not forget that 2016 wasn’t ancient history. It was post-Ferguson as Neidorff well knows, having stepped up so admirably to support that community in the wake of the tragic events there. St. Louis’ crime problems were no different in 2016 than they are now.

The only things that have really changed, apparently, are Centene’s corporate needs and whatever personal relationships on the part of Neidorff and his associates that the unwashed masses are not entitled to know about.

But what everyone should know is this: When the man who built the largest publicly owned company in St. Louis tells the nation’s business community that his hometown sucks, the nation’s business community listens.

Like it or not, that will likely be the gift that keeps on giving to St. Louis’ competition in the never-ending battles for economic growth and development. In that context, at least, the actions of Michael Neidorff in 2020 may cause far more lasting damage to St. Louis’ economy than losing its pro football team ever did.

Correction: The original version of this column incorrectly described Centene as privately owned. We regret the error.

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at rhartmann1952@gmail.com or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).

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