Gerry Welch served as the Mayor of Webster Groves for no small amount of time, leading that city’s government from 1998-2022.
During that stretch, Welch saw the arrival and departure of Better Together, a well-funded and -staffed effort intended to give the region’s myriad municipalities a push towards consolidation. With a blue ribbon board of advisors, Better Together explored everything from the City and County merging to small municipalities sharing services or simply melding into one another. The presence of Better Together, if nothing else, kept a conversation alive about the potential of: cost savings for smaller cities, the reduction of redundant services and the cleanup of untidy court systems.
The mission was to “support the St. Louis region by acting as a catalyst for the removal of governmental, economic, and racial barriers to the region’s growth and prosperity for all of our citizens by promoting unity, trust, efficiency, and accountability.” And in doing so, lots of mayors from small municipalities were engaged in lots of discussions.
“Oh my heavens,” says Welch, “we were very, very active when Better Together was happening. We had lots of conversations about what that could all mean, municipalities being absorbed into some larger entity. Over the years, we’d had plenty of conversations with municipalities around us, talks about trying to share services. Rock Hill is a community adjacent to Webster and we’d had talks about sharing some services from swimming pools to fire departments. Those conversations, I think, were often held by” other municipalities, as well.
With Rock Hill, for example, she says that a feeling of mutualism has long been in play. For example, if a fire were to break out on the Webster Groves side of the towns’ border, it’s not uncommon for a Rock Hill fire truck to arrive on scene first. Ditto, WG’s trucks might be on-scene for a fire in Rock Hill.
“We had an awful lot of mutual aid with them, and a lot of us had mutual aid agreements with other cities, especially relating to EMS and ambulance services,” Welch says. “We’d show up and help one another. We had a strong one with Shrewsbury and also with Rock Hill. I’m sure that Kirkwood had them with folks on their other sides.”
Lots of social science in recent years has pointed out a number: 150, aka Dunbar’s number. That’s about the amount of humans it takes to find some balance, of roles being sorted, of order. A group of 150, if cast out into the wilderness, would be able to function in a well-appointed way, with deep social connections, all members of the group familiar enough with the others to form bonds of common benefit. Around St. Louis County, most towns haven’t quite challenged a population number of 150, but many muni’s are found in the range of 2,500-7,500 residents, enough to call themselves a separate unit, but maybe not big enough to serve the citizens in the best, most-functional manner.
A number that Welch tosses out is considerably higher than these: 20,000. That number, she feels, is a good baseline for smaller municipalities to reach.
“There seems to be something that’s the ideal size for a local government,” she says, noting Webster’s mark of roughly 25,000. “It gives you an opportunity to have a police department that you can observe and hold accountable. That’s just one of the things that’s useful in having a municipality that’s that size: you can pay close attention to your police force. It’s enough size to do other things on an effective scale.”
So maybe (and let’s not go crazy) but would things be ruined by just… doubling the size?
For example: bring the cities of Kirkwood and Webster Groves not so much into a mutual aid society as a single entity? It’d be a regional move that wouldn’t be about a couple of cities of a few thousand each, but a power move that’d create a central county uber-burb of about 50,000 residents.
A hint here and a hint there and “what if…?” scenario presented yonder and… nah. Welch doesn’t bite on a notion that this could work, or would ever, ever be adopted.
“I don’t think that the two cities would get together,” she says, kindly enough. “We each have our own school district, our police, fire and parks departments. The thing is this: we function really well. If there was something that could happen cooperatively, that would be possible. Kirkwood has some cities around it like Oakland, which is a tiny, little community that Kirkwood has a close relationship with. And there’s Glendale, which sits between Kirkwood and Webster. And then there’s Warson Woods, where some of the children are in the Kirkwood district and some are in Webster’s…”
So, yeah. No.
TWO LITTLE CITIES GET HITCHED
Welch believes that the Better Together plan struggled in a variety of ways, especially when it came to the biggest picture of all: a merger between the City and County. She comes to the conclusion that “I think to go at something as big as this, Better Together’s plan was not a good idea. I think that if you’re wanting some of the smaller municipalities to merge together, that’s probably a more doable thing in St. Louis. I don’t remember the exact numbers – I’d have to dig through some of my materials from then – but a majority of municipalities are under 10,000 people.”
Municipal mergers are rare in St. Louis County, but they’re far from unprecedented. These days, well under 90 exist thanks to 2023’s merger of Glen Echo Park and Normandy. In that case, a vote from the good citizens of Glen Echo Park carried the day with fewer than 30 votes cast. That’s an extremely small number of registered voters, of course, but there’re a decent number of muni’s throughout the County that clock under 1,000 residents, while some (e.g., Norwood Court and Hillsdale) land just above that mark.
If this merger seemed like a nice bellwether to the idea of further municipal shrinkage in the County, a few factors might be taken into account. After Champ was incorporated in 1959, there was a real chance that the County would top 100 municipalities, with Champ clocking in at #98. Since then, the tally shows 16 folding, including long-ago names like Elmdale, Peerless Park, St. George, Mackenzie. The most-known name of the lot may be west county’s Times Beach, which was disincorporated in 1985.
On the flipside, five municipalities have come into being over the past five decades, including some heavy hitters in Maryland Heights (1985), Chesterfield (1988) and Wildwood (1995).
Though the Glen Echo Park vote was held over the summer, the move will become permanent in February of next year, as all city services will be melded in Normandy with GEP’s 120 residents joining the 4,300-plus of Normandy. Glen Echo Park will remain on the map, though, as a neighborhood within Normandy and a quirky one at that. As Victoria Valle, the chair of the village’s Board of Trustees told the Post-Dispatch ahead of the August vote, “We’re surrounded on three sides by Normandy. So I mean, we’re like a little finger in their side, literally.”
The Post, in a small handful of pieces prior to that vote, noted the phrase “a move toward consolidation,” suggesting that other municipalities could join in on the disincorporation movement, such as it is. In later August, though, reporter Victor Stefanescu reported that a trio of places weren’t looking to add numbers, as “In a lopsided tally, Glen Echo Park residents voted 28-1 on Aug. 8 to merge with Normandy, its much-larger neighbor, a move that village leaders said would leave more funds for maintenance, improve code enforcement and make administration more efficient in the two-road municipality. Leaders in Pasadena Park, Beverly Hills and Westwood said things are different in their municipalities, each with fewer than 500 residents.”
That same August 28 piece quoted a State Senator, Rita Heard Days, a St. Louis County councilwoman from District 1, “where many small-population municipalities sit, said that legislation that limits revenue municipalities can generate from parking and speeding tickets has curtailed funds that smaller municipalities depended upon. ‘I think the citizens on both sides recognize that in order to be a city or to be a village, you have to be able to offer services,’ Days said. ‘And I think sometimes the smaller ones are not able to, to do what they really want to do for their citizens because of limited resources, limited number of people who wanted to get involved with government.’”
Indeed, St. Louis County municipalities offer no one pattern in how they’re set up, whether they be led through a Board of Trustees, a strong mayor system, a city manager system or a hybrid. Some field their own fire departments and others are part of a larger pool; ditto police service, which may be hyper-localized, or provided by the County. These points on a map may be fully-vested cities, or villages, or even “census designated places.”
A group of cities that’ve begun to address the disparities that can exist in a single, small city trying to foot all the bills for all the service. In the “Normandy Schools footprint,” the 24:1 collective exists. Some of that group’s efforts are far from headline-grabbing, but cities in it are getting reduced prices on winter road salt, they’re saving on tree trimming. Of course, there’s also a go-it-alone vibe to much of North County.
Let us consider the myriad town signs along I-170. Better Together’s website, existent though buried in a sort of amber, notes that “a resident driving from the St. Louis Galleria to Lambert St. Louis International Airport will pass through 15 SEPARATE POLICE JURISDICTIONS during a 14-minute trip.” (Caps theirs, but the point stands.)
Unification talk’s often involved the smallest cities, with those cities often majority-black cities. The pushback from present officeholders could offer the same argument as those from other cities of a different demographic hue: people in these towns know their elected officials. They’re neighbors, living around the corner or right next door.
In a story from the August 2020 edition of Places Journal, the writer Anna Sellers Friedrich discusses this narrative: The fragmented political structure of St. Louis County has been questioned many times. Most recently, the challenge came in the form of a 2018 ballot initiative named “Better Together,” which proposed to reclassify municipalities as “municipal districts” and reunite the county with the city of St. Louis, forming a new metropolitan government for the region. Some of the loudest critics of the initiative were Black political leaders from tiny municipalities in North St. Louis County. These leaders acknowledged that the fragmented municipal system hampers the ability of Black communities to focus political power within the framework of county governance. They argued, however, that to dissolve established boundaries without carefully considering how those communities would be represented in the larger metropolitan government would be to diminish the voices of Black county residents. According to Dellwood Mayor Reggie Jones, “people have worked for years to be heard.” A city-county merger would “have them give up their seats at the tables in the very municipalities where they have chosen to lead and live.”
The piece (which, online, provides an eye-catching grid of tiny city hall imagery from throughout North County) seems to lean into the arguments that a smaller-is-better approach is best and one that St. Louisans of the early-to-mid 20th century found a positive trend.
As the piece continues, According to political scientist E. Terrence Jones, “several recently developed subdivisions, wanting to protect and maintain their homogeneity, decided that pre-emptive incorporation was the best way to handle any takeover threat.” At the time, annexation by established cities was unfavorable and incorporation was an easy process, requiring signatures from only fifty percent of the proposed city population. The civic boundaries of these small cities have remained even as the demographics of county neighborhoods shifted.
And thus, 98 muni’s once came to be in St. Louis County.
St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell, also running against Congresswomen Cori Bush in Missouri’s 1st Congressional District strikes a middling tone on the mergers movement, such as it is in 2023.
“I’m not certain the number of municipalities is as much at issue as a lack of regional strategies and approaches to problems – such as crime, schools, homelessness and economic development, to name a few – that other major cities and regions have addressed,” he responds via text. “And those cities are growing as a result – Indianapolis, Atlanta, Phoenix, even our sister city to the west in Kansas City. We need to take the best of the best practices, benchmark them and continually improve them to benefit our region. Also, any plan(s) need to have community support and buy-in on the front end as opposed to the other way around. This region is a sleeping giant. If we find a way to work together, with our region’s best interests in mind, St. Louis has the potential to once again be one of the premier cities in the world.”
Now, a notion to create a superpower in Central County, a city that wouldn’t even require the Webster-Kirkwood Times to change its name, is a different animal entirely. The problems in these two cities aren’t, from the outside, as vexing as the legal system inequities brought to light in the glow of post-Ferguson 2014 media coverage. They’re just two cities, living side-by-side, offering a lot of the same positives but doing so under different flags.
What if the next Better Together didn’t call on little North County cities to band together, but looked, instead, at the solid muni’s already getting things done for the citizenry? And yes, the residents of Kirkwood’s Meacham Park and North Webster would probably like a word here, but we’re in more of a contemporary mode for today. Let’s actually take a quick moment for a fictional digression…
A SHORT, UNREALISTIC STORY BY THOMAS
Webster Groves and Kirkwood are intertwined, never more so than during the week leading up to the Turkey Day football game that’s been taking place since 1898, with only a few breaks in the annual contest. Over this past week, the city’s high schools have served as a centerpiece to whatever rivalry truly exists between these places. Pep rallies have been held, dances danced, lockers decorated. It’s onto the Turkey Day game, when young men from both towns suit up for their hometown team, many of them taking the field for their last, truly competitive game and thus, saving themselves some late-in-life CTE.
(Wait. That’s all true. The following is not.)
This Monday past, a few minutes after 10 am, a realtor named Chris Smith met a young couple from out of state, featuring the unlikely set of names of Terrence and Terri. The three met at Starbucks in Old Orchard, where they sat next to an elder reading the news on her first generation Apple tablet. T&T had been told that Webster Groves would be a great place to settle if heading to the St. Louis region for work, and, yes, if thinking about the start of their own family. Though they’d spent the past week devouring real estate portal listings for pricing, they hadn’t yet seen the town in person. Courteously, their seat-neighbor had made conversation with them and passed along a few thoughts before Chris arrived: about how’d they’d learn to love the leafy streets, about how they’d meet their neighbors quickly enough, about some type of municipal micro-debate they didn’t understand about the local college, also named Webster.
They learned that the immediate neighborhood was solid, that the mini-mall they sat in was always full of tenants and that there were at least a half-dozen places to walk for food within 500-feet of the coffee shop’s front door. The prices within the area reflected a well-maintained base of homes, added to in small increments, as well as a school system that featured a notable list of acclaimed alumni. Shopping and other resources could be found within the boundaries of the town. So those prices, high for the region, reflected… something. A word that could very well be: “stability.”
Also this Monday past, a few minutes past 10 am, a realtor named Kris Smith met a pair of empty-nesters from the City of St. Louis, Patrick and Patty, looking to downsize and simplify their lives with a transition from home-ownership to that condo life. They’d long thought of Kirkwood as a place to enjoy their 50s and 60s, allowing them to stay relatively close to their families while moving to a community with all the amenities. Unlike their younger, home-buying equivalents just down I-44, the pair didn’t need a nearby elder to give them the rundown of what “makes Kirkwood Kirkwood.” As they sat down with coffees at Kaldi’s, they already knew.
They knew that they’d be moving into a town with all the services and amenities that a modern American could want, in a city known for a mix of new-build and historic homes, tree-lined streets, patched roads. True, in Kirkwood, they might shop at Kirkwood Deli & Convenience, whereas they’d shop at Freddies if living in Webster Groves. They’d have an occasional nightcap at the Geyer Inn, rather than Weber’s. They’d attend the Greentree Festival instead of the Old Webster Jazz and Blues Festival. (But heck! The towns are so close that they could attend both! And eat at both delis, drink at both bars, shop at both groceries!)
Both Chris and Kris eventually made their sales, because people want to live in Webster and Kirkwood.
But somewhere else in town, at the very same time, a billionaire philanthropist named Lex Linkford decided to convene conversations about a strategy dubbed, for now, “Five Fingers, One Fist.” The plan would seek to wed Webster to Kirkwood (new pop: 50,554), ideally putting Oakland, Glendale and Shrewsbury into the back seat of this big, blended family’s civic wagon (new pop: 64,505). And once complete, why not add Warson Woods and Rock Hill to the familial mix, making this enlarged ‘burb one of the 10 biggest cities in Missouri and biggest in STL County with 71,097 citizens?
Webster Woods, they’d call it. And this time the Webster-Kirkwood Times would have to announce a name change after 40 years of operation…
BACK TO REALITY
How can small cities be lobbied to join bigger ones, especially if there are clear, obvious, actionable ways for those towns to save money and provide better constituent service? Let’s go back to the amiable Mayor Emeritus Welch, the one person who’d actually take our call on this fool’s errand.
“That’s a tricky question to ask me,” she says, “because I believe that people have a right to determine their own governance and that’s what some of these small municipalities say. They have the right for their own governance. And it’s really hard for folks to think about giving that up. Are there thoughts of benefits to living in a larger city? Absolutely, there can be. And I don’t always know how much people understand that. There’re all kinds of ways to improve with larger numbers, there’s much more efficiency than you can find when you’re so small. The fear of giving up control… that may just be it.
“But you have to have people out there selling this,” she adds. “The last couple of mergers were really good for those towns. Maybe people are starting to see that there are some big benefits to merging.”
And this week at the Turkey Day Game, the young men of Webster Groves and Kirkwood could be those people, those sellers. As alumni greet former classmates and cheerleaders cheer and pep bands play, they could march out to the 50-yard of Lyons Field for a group embrace, before exchanging their jerseys into an blended orange-red-white-and-black melange of unity, of oneness. They could ask the scoreboard to be turned off, playing the game for pure fun. They could, for this and all days, be the players from the Turkey Day That Would Never Be Forgotten.
(And here it looks as if we’ve slipped back into fiction, championing a plotline I’ve found oh-so-hard to shake. Enjoy the game.)
Thomas Crone writes about being Sixteen in Webster Groves at his Substack this week: thomascrone.substack.com.