So it wasn't exactly a surprise when SSM Health Care decided to pull the plug on the obstetrics unit at DePaul Hospital in Bridgeton in favor of a new maternity hospital in more prosperous Chesterfield. SSM was just the latest business to turn its back on the county's older northern communities.
For health-care professionals like Dr. Godofredo Herzog, an obstetrician/gynecologist who's practiced in North County since 1967, the decision rankles, especially because DePaul isn't the only facility cutting back. Christian Hospital Northwest on Monday announced plans to close its gynecological operating room, among other services.
"What it means for North County residents is their choice of obstetrics and gynecological services is going to be markedly reduced," Herzog says. North County residents, he says, "have lost the convenience of a neighborhood hospital."
Losing the medical services is just part of a long-term trend that has accelerated in recent years as residents of northern suburbs have moved away -- many of them to St. Charles County.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates show St. Louis County's population is dropping, with most of the losses coming from North County. Nowhere, according to the estimates, is the decline as marked as it is in municipalities like Berkeley, which lost an estimated 15 percent of its population between 1990 and 1998, and Overland, which lost 9 percent.
As mayor of Florissant for more than 30 years, James Eagan has watched the phenomenon from a unique vantage point. His city's population ballooned from 35,000 in 1960 to 65,000 in 1970 as thousands of brand-new ranch homes sprouted across the landscape in the affluent decades after World War II. The development rush ended long ago, however. Florissant's current population is now down to an estimated 47,000.
Eagan's city weathered the change far better than most of its neighbors, retaining a strong middle class and keeping property values rising. The city's 10-square-mile area is built out, however, and many young families are looking elsewhere to settle down, despite Florissant's low crime rate, a strict housing code that maintained its older housing stock, and amenities that include 380 acres of parkland, two community centers and a $2 million aquatic park.
Eagan is decidedly upbeat about his city's future, but all 10 of his children live elsewhere: One lives just outside the Florissant city limits in unincorporated St. Louis County, four live out of town and the rest are in places like Frontenac, Des Peres and St. Charles. "For some reason they all have to have brand-new houses," he says. "And we don't have brand-new houses."
North County communities, including Florissant, have some of the oldest housing stock in the region -- smaller, bungalow-style homes on tiny lots. The older homes reach a point where they either require a lot of money to repair or they don't meet the needs of 1990s homebuyers, who want more spacious houses on larger lots, says Dennis Judd, a political-science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Consequently, most North County communities have seen property values lag behind those of other areas of the county -- and, in some cases, actually drop. For example, whereas municipalities such as Crestwood, Chesterfield, Des Peres and Clayton saw property values increase by about 30 percent from 1995 to 1999, North County cities like Dellwood, Ferguson, Berkeley and Calverton Park grew by less than 5 percent. Kinloch's property values actually fell 29 percent; Pagedale, Uplands Park, Pine Lawn and Northwoods all suffered declines. Even Florissant, which still is considered a stable community, registered just 12 percent growth, according to property-valuation data provided by the county Department of Revenue.
Judd attributes part of the pressure on North County on an overabundance of municipalities. "It has the largest number of small municipalities in St. Louis County, and when you fragment leadership that way, it makes it very difficult for that part of the county to compete very well. Those municipalities aren't in a position to adopt very good policies to stabilize.
Race also is a continuing subtext in North County's evolution, Judd says, but not necessarily the main one. "In the 1970s especially and continuing into the 1980s, there was a heavy movement of blacks from the city into North County and then, unfortunately, the white flight we had seen from the city in previous decades," he says. "What's been created is a kind of a situation which people often blame on race. I don't think it's race so much as it is things that really matter -- the degree to which housing stock was older and people who could afford to move would, and how the level of public services is just not adequate in a lot of municipalities."
Judd singles out Florissant as a city that provides a high level of services. Many other North County cities, he says, have unusually high tax rates. But with the low assessed values of their properties, they are still unable to generate enough money to provide adequate services.
Retail revenue has also followed the move out west.
The city of Jennings was once home to the first generation of suburban shopping malls -- such as River Roads, which had a Stix, Baer & Fuller, a J.C. Penney and a Woolworth's during its heyday in the 1960s. By 1995, all that remained of those stores was a J.C. Penney outlet, and when it closed its doors, so did many of the shopping center's other tenants. Northland Shopping Center lost Famous-Barr in 1994, and more vacancies followed there.
Jennings Mayor Benjamin Sutphin has lived in the city for 20 years. "When we moved in, we were within five minutes of any shopping you wanted to do. That's not true today," he says. "There's not really anyplace to do Christmas shopping. You have to go to Ferguson, Florissant, Jamestown or Northwest Plaza," he says.
"Everybody is migrating on out to St. Charles and West County, and a lot of the shopping conveniences have gone with them," Sutphin says. The departure of needed medical services is just an added blow.
"North County is still saturated with people, young people and families. I think they're kind of abandoning us to a point," he says. "It's like when they closed the city hospitals. I think that was a crock, too. It's like now all they're looking for is big high class and the big money, and to heck with the common folk."
Ferguson suffered a steep decline in population in the 1980s, something Mayor Steve Wegert attributes to white flight and the effects of uncontrolled urban sprawl. "When Ferguson was incorporated 100 years ago ... people wanted to move away from the dirt and noise of downtown," he says. "This was urban sprawl back then. We've both benefited and are now a victim of urban sprawl."
He sees the layoffs associated with McDonnell Douglas and the company's subsequent merger with Boeing as a factor in the region's decline. In 1990, at its peak, McDonnell Douglas employed 40,000 people in the St. Louis area. Today, a fraction of that number, 16,300 people, work for Boeing -- and more layoffs are likely.
"Boeing was to North County what Chrysler is to Fenton. That's the major employer, the major tax base," Wegert says. "When a company like that has problems and is significantly downsized, it has a ripple effect."
He agrees that the area also continues to suffer from the "go west" syndrome.
"People are moving to what they view as better opportunities, better jobs, better fill-in-the-blank. We still are slowly bleeding the middle class out of our North County communities, and that is the key to the strength of a community -- the middle class."
Retail has left his city, too. Ferguson went without a supermarket for two years after Schnucks pulled out, although it has since been replaced with a Shop-'N-Save.
What can stem, or reverse, the decline? Wegert believes North County municipalities must better market themselves and provide better services. His city is considering whether to build a community center, for instance. He says St. Louis County government hasn't helped matters, with decisions like one that replaced a Target facility on I-270 in Ferguson with a non-revenue-generating church. "It just doesn't make any sense that a complex the size of a Target store with frontage on the highway and the best the county could do to help fill that facility is a church," he says.
He wants the county to do more to help.
"There needs to be a concerted push from the county and the state to help with these migrations," Wegert says.
In Florissant, where the mayor worries about the viability of the city's North County neighbors, Eagan sees property-tax-base sharing as "the answer. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out." It was proposed in an October study by Minnesota lawmaker Myron Orfield called "St. Louis Metropolitics" and commissioned by Metropolitan Congregations United for St. Louis, a coalition of 62 churches.
The idea could provide lower taxes and better services to 80 percent of the region, the study claims, if cities contributed a portion of their tax base to a pool, which would then be redistributed on the basis of a formula that would give preference to cities struggling with low tax bases and high social needs. Most of the biggest recipients would be inner suburbs such as Wellston, Pine Lawn and Jennings.
But Eagan holds out little hope that such a plan could become reality: "Until such time there is state legislation mandating such an approach, it is not going to happen. People are not voluntarily going to do this. The cities that have do not want to give to the cities that have not."
Judd sees no easy answers, either, given the sheer number of municipalities in North County. "In this metropolitan area, there has always been huge resistance to any idea of consolidating municipalities. But short of that, I don't know what can be done."