Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch February 10, 2016.
If you thought the future of St. Louis governance was going to be determined by a tax-hating billionaire named Rex Sinquefield, think again.
The more likely instigator is a 23-year-old West County kid who lives in his parents’ basement.
His name is Jake Hollander and he wants two things in life: a Stanley Cup for the St. Louis Blues and a reunified St. Louis.
“Each person gets maybe one opportunity in their life to seize a moment that is bigger than themselves. After Ferguson, I knew our region could no longer afford to sweep its broken system under the rug,” Hollander told me. “I had a restless desire to become a part the solution.”
I first met Hollander via email two years ago — before Ferguson — shortly after he graduated from American University in Washington, with a double major in political science and philosophy. He had read the Post-Dispatch editorial series “A Greater St. Louis,” which called for massive government unification in a region known for its division and dysfunction.
“I am curious to know if there are any organizational/grassroots movement, concrete plans, or campaigns in making the Post’s words a reality?” he asked.
There was nothing of the sort, at that moment, with the most visible organization being the Better Together nonprofit group that was gathering data on the massive number of government bodies that provide services in the St. Louis region.
While funded by a wide variety of civic-minded donors, Better Together from the beginning was seen by most in St. Louis as a Sinquefield production. Its employees all work for Sinquefield’s lobbying and political arm, Pelopidas.
The assumption among many has been that when the studies are done, Sinquefield, the state’s most prolific political donor, will simply start a new organization. He’ll then work to fund a statewide ballot issue to somehow unify the various governments that make up a city disconnected from a county that itself has 90 separate municipalities.
Maybe that will happen.
But in the meantime, an upstart young college graduate who spent his youth working at Fortel’s Pizza Den and playing hockey for Marquette High School has plans on being the leader of a truly grass-roots movement that unifies St. Louis.
After Hollander graduated from college, while he was working for a public relations firm in D.C., he started tinkering with the idea of starting a nonprofit group to help create the advocacy campaign to unify St. Louis. Friends helped with website development. He started contacting various folks who had been thinking about this issue for years, such as Bill Frisella of “St. Louis is a World Class City” and the business leaders who created the UnifySTL.comwebsite.
Then he took the plunge.
On Sept. 30, he left Washington to come back to St. Louis and make something big happen.
On Oct. 7, he incorporated his new nonprofit: St. Louis Strong.
Now he’s building a board, starting to think about fundraising, and holding meetings all around St. Louis talking to civic leaders and neighborhood groups about why the region’s current governance holds St. Louis back, economically and socially.
What he has found, and what gives Hollander hope, is that people in all parts of the region understand the problems, though they see them within the prism of their own political and social backgrounds.
“What prevents me from getting discouraged and giving up is hearing hard-line conservatives, strict liberals, and moderates all agree that the status quo is broken,” Hollander said. “Republicans realize the oversaturation of government in St. Louis kills our economy, and Democrats understand that the current structure actively hurts its residents and maintains inequity.
“In West County, people understand the system wastes their money. In North County, people know that the system perpetuates poverty and inequity. It is a breath of fresh air to find people from all different backgrounds agreeing on a political issue.”
So what now? That’s the question everybody who hopes for some sort of a unification movement asks.
Hollander favors a regional government that handles police, fire, courts, business regulation and taxing policy, with a fewer number of municipalities — maybe 40 to 50 — handling local issues such as parks and public works.
Cole McNary, who is on the St. Louis Strong board, favors the “One City” approach, where everything in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County becomes one, large metropolitan city, broken down into perhaps nine boroughs that could localize some government services.
Whatever the final solution is, Hollander believes that a grass-roots organization like his will be part of it, building it from the ground up so that when that inevitable election comes, consensus has already been built around whatever new structure emerges.
Hollander embodies the entrepreneurial spirit that is leading a business revival in Cortex and downtown St. Louis. But he also knows he can’t live in his parents’ basement forever. He believes in the St. Louis Strong idea and hopes he can persuade a skeptical city to come along for the ride.
“Until we recognize that we are all St. Louisans,” he says, “I remain anxious about the health of our region.”