ST. LOUIS — A city board Thursday questioned a series of consulting contracts worth nearly $400,000, signaling growing unease at the number of consultants being hired by the city’s economic development arm.
The board of the St. Louis Development Corp. tabled all of its agenda items Thursday, three of which related to hiring outreach and technical assistance consultants or approving firms for future work on a new $37 million grant program meant to spur investment in north St. Louis commercial corridors.
“We’re approving consulting contracts left and right at every meeting, and some of these people, I’ve never heard of,” said board member Loura Gilbert, who spent much of her 40-plus-year banking career working in St. Louis community development.
“Just giving me the name doesn’t do much for me. … I know you had an internal group vet and make a recommendation. Still, are these all one-person firms? What’s their capacity? What’s their experience? We don’t ever see any of that.”
People are also reading…
SLDC has awarded at least six sizable consulting contracts in the last year. The agency has been tasked with managing several multimillion-dollar programs funded with the city’s infusion of federal pandemic aid, prompting some of those consultant contracts. But it has also turned to consultants for rebranding, strategic planning and operational review.
The consultants SLDC staff proposed hiring Thursday were to help launch the north city commercial corridor grant program, which the Board of Aldermen passed in April.
A contract worth up to $200,000 with MWR Coaching and Consulting, owned by Maranda Witherspoon Richardson, was for “community outreach” to spread the word about the grant program. Two other groups, Morgan Graves Consultants and Park Central Development, were to be approved for a short list allowing them to be hired later.
Another contract with the National Development Council, a national nonprofit that works closely with the Urban League, was worth up to $175,000 for “technical assistance” to help businesses and nonprofits in eligible areas apply for the grants. SLDC staff proposed adding Revby LLC and Pathways United LLC as future consultants.
Another resolution would have allowed hiring JAH Legacy Group LLC, Emerald Capital Strategic Advisors, Motley Waller LLP and Urban Focus Planning and Design LLC for real estate development consulting services for the program.
Daffney Moore, SLDC’s chief of staff, said hiring the consultants was “a requirement that was based on legislation that we are following.”
SLDC Director Neal Richardson also said the need for outreach and technical assistance was spelled out in the north side corridor bill signed by Mayor Tishaura O. Jones in May.
“What’s in that legislation, it clearly stated that SLDC will engage with a consultant to complete and conduct community engagement as well as provide technical assistance support to ensure that the community is aware of the program,” Richardson said.
Asked where the ordinance prescribes that, a spokeswoman for SLDC pointed to the table at the end of the legislation itemizing the amount of money designated for each area. That list also appropriates $825,000 for “Area Wide Benefit Projects, Planning, Marketing, Consulting.”
Richardson proposed tabling the contracts to gather more information on the companies for board members, which the board approved.
The corridor plan has already drawn scrutiny for a requirement that any grants awarded must receive a letter of support from the alderman representing that area. Three members of the Board of Aldermen were indicted in June in part for soliciting bribes in exchange for aldermanic letters of support given to a businessman seeking tax breaks and real estate through SLDC programs.
Some have called for changing that provision of the law, while others say it provides important local oversight. An incentive reform bill from Alderman Shane Cohn is expected to be taken up by aldermen in coming months, and the mayor is currently reviewing it, a Jones spokesman said.
“She has emphasized that any reform must increase transparency, promote community feedback, and eliminate real and perceived conflicts of interest,” spokesman Nick Desideri said in a statement. “Our office flagged this concern prior to the indictments, and is open to revisiting the program to address it while bringing in previously left-out neighborhoods when the Board returns.”