For a year now, local business leaders have been making the case that
if the St. Louis region hopes to grow its economy, it needs to attract more
Largely left out of the conversation so far, though, has been a key question: How?
The answers will begin to come Thursday, when the newly renamed St. Louis Mosaic Project kicks off its next phase. The project will present a second study, offering some ideas on how St. Louis might draw more newcomers, and start fleshing out a fuller plan. And they'll start to raise money for the effort.
Project director Betsy Cohen didn't want to disclose too many details ahead of Thursday's summit, but she said the ideas would include ways to help connect international college students here with area job opportunities, and to add foreign-born focus to current training and small business programs.
"We don't have to start from scratch," she said.
Still, the stated goal -- having the fastest immigration growth of any big city in the U.S. by 2020 -- is a tall order, largely for the same reasons St. Louis drew relatively few foreign migrants in the last two decades. People who study why immigrants move where they do point to two main factors: Current communities and economic opportunity.
"Social networks have become really a huge part of who's coming and where they're going," said Jeanne Batalova, a demographer at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. "They've really become the oil in the immigration machine."
Newcomers, Batalova said, are more likely to go where they already know people, be it family, friends or people from the same town. It's a way to break in to a new life, to find a job and a place to live. But those well-worn paths often don't lead to St. Louis.
Aside from Bosnians after that country's war in the mid-1990s, St. Louis doesn't have any particularly large immigrant communities. There are significant pockets of Mexicans, Vietnamese, Chinese and Indians, and more recent arrivals from eastern Africa and central Asia. But St. Louis largely missed the immigration boom that reshaped many cities over the last 20 years, and big numbers went elsewhere. Today, of the 25 biggest metro areas in the U.S., only Pittsburgh has a lower share of its population that was born abroad.
Some of those places that drew many newcomers -- such as Atlanta, Denver and Seattle -- were not big gateways when the last immigration wave started, Batalova said. But they had something else to offer.
"Jobs, jobs and jobs," she said. "The main driving force for most people is economic opportunity."
On that, St. Louis doesn't stack up so great either. Job growth here has lagged behind the nation for most of the last decade, and the region is still struggling to build back 60,000 jobs it lost in the recession. Indeed, the whole point of this immigration push is to change that, to spark economic growth on the theory that immigrants who do move here tend to be well-educated and are more likely than average to start a business. That in turn employs people and helps other businesses grow.
"We're trying to make the pie bigger for everyone," Cohen said.
St. Louis is not the only place trying to flip its economic script through immigration. A number of cities across the Midwest and Northeast are wrestling with the same chicken-and-egg dilemma. And what they're learning could help
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