Development is nothing new to Clayton, something Mayor Harold Sanger knows well. He also recognizes that since the mayor and the Board of Aldermen eliminated the height restriction in downtown Clayton in the late 1950s, few developments have been implemented without considerable controversy.
When he makes presentations about development, Sanger often brings along a picture. The picture was taken in the early 1960s where Continental Life Insurance wanted to build a building between Compton and Brighton, a building that still stands today. Depicted in the picture is an angry group of citizens protesting the development.
“The people of Clayton Gardens were literally out with picket signs opposing the project because they thought it was going to be the end of life as it was known in Clayton,” Sanger said.
Another past development, the Justice Center, was similarly contested.
“When the Justice Center was built people came out and said ‘there’s going to be convicts and rapists and murderers running through the streets of Clayton,” Sanger said. “You can’t even tell it’s a prison; it looks like an office building.”
Despite the opposition, the city leaders at the time approved these developments and the fears of many residents went unrealized.
”We have to do what’s right for the community; not everyone’s going to like it,” Sanger said. “Never, ever, ever will there be a unanimous [development].”
For Sanger, the Centene Expansion Project has the potential to be right for the community.
“To have one developer develop that entire property is both unique and extremely beneficial to the community,” he said, referring to the 22 parcels of property that are part of the Centene Expansion. “If those were to be developed by individual developers, you would not have a project that really has a whole general purpose.”
Much of the property Centene hopes to develop is currently vacant, meaning it is creating a minimal amount of tax revenue each year. For Sanger, this makes the expansion all the more appealing.
“People will buy things, they will go to lunch, they will take their laundry to a dry cleaner, they will buy something on their way home or they’ll stay and have dinner,” he said. “All of this adds to our tax base. So it’s a very fiscally important project.”
Also fiscally important to the City of Clayton is the tax abatement Centene is requesting. However, Sanger believes that much of the controversy surrounding the tax abatement is due at least in part to a lack of understanding of what a tax abatement truly means.
“We’re not sticking our hand in our pocket and saying ‘Here’s millions of dollars, go do what you want,’ Sanger said. “We’re just saying [that] to help make a project reality, we are willing to look at a situation and see if it justifies a lower tax rate.”
In the entire history of Clayton, the city government has only ever given two tax abatements. Even if the city granted Centene the requested tax abatement, abatements would remain far from the norm.
“Every project is looked at to see if it is an overall benefit,” Sanger explained. “When we look at a request, we will never give a tax abatement that would create a situation where we would be getting less [revenue] than we’re getting now or not enough to cover any additional services that are needed by the new property.”
The other main point of controversy for the project, traffic, is something Sanger plans on addressing throughout the approval process for the Board of Aldermen.
“The [traffic] suggestions will be incorporated into the agreement with Centene. It will definitely help to alleviate those things,” Sanger said.
Even with the possibility of increased traffic, Sanger is optimistic about the implications of the Centene expansion.
“We’re just trying to create something that’s beneficial to our community through additional tax base, to our retailers and restaurateurs through more feet on the street,” he said. “It [The Centene expansion] really solidifies Clayton as the epicenter of commerce, justice and education.”
Other city officials share some of the hope Sanger has for the potential benefits of the Centene expansion. For George Ertle, Assistant to the City Manager, the Centene expansion could fulfill the mission statement of Clayton Planning and Development Services, which includes the phrase, “to promote responsible growth to ensure that the City remains a sustainable, well-designed, and prosperous community.”
“The hallmarks of [such a] community include opportunities for job growth, attracting residents, [and] ensuring sustainable revenue sources,” Ertle said. “The Centene proposal has the potential to provide opportunities that support these values; therefore Clayton is undergoing a careful and transparent development review process of the project,”
In an effort to create a sustainable, well-designed and prosperous community, the City of Clayton has been looking beyond just the Centene expansion project and working to encourage development as a whole.
Development, in general, is an essential component of Sanger’s vision for the City of Clayton.
“That’s a very important part because [development] will draw quality retailers, quality restaurateurs, and that’s really what we’re about – having quality places for people to go,” he said.
Sanger’s vision for Clayton’s future is largely a product of his reflection on Clayton’s past. “My job and the current Board of Aldermen’s job is to plant seeds for future boards and mayors for future generations. That’s what the boards and mayors did for us in the past,” he said. “Our goal is to keep it, enhance it, and make it even better.”