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Washington County still hopes to join MSA

POTOSI — Members of the Washington County Commission were relieved two weeks ago when the Missouri Department of Natural Resources recommended the St. Louis area emission control program not be extended into their county, but they are hoping it will be included in the St. Louis Metropolitan Statistical Area.

“That is a totally different thing,” said Presiding Commissioner Robert Reed. “I think the county can benefit from being added to the St. Louis MSA.”

What does rural Washington County have in common with the Metropolitan St. Louis Area? It is sparsely populated in comparison. Its biggest local employers are the maximum security Potosi Correctional Center and the new Wal-Mart Super Center. It doesn’t have traffic jams nor professional sports teams.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the one thing that qualifies Washington County for inclusion in the St. Louis Metropolitan Statistical Area is that more than 25 percent of the county’s employed work force commutes to jobs in the St. Louis area.

The budget office of the federal government used to have more criteria than just commuting as requirements for inclusion in an MSA, but that changed. Now the focus is only on commuting. Federal officials decided that commuting alone is enough to weave those economic, social and cultural ties.

Many native residents of Washington County have commuted to jobs in St. Louis for years, but with highway improvements the number has grown. In the past decade, another factor also boosted the number of daily commuters, the Census Bureau points out.

In the 1990s, the agency noted, about 3,000 more people settled in Washington County and about 1,700 of those people commute to St. Louis. That pushed the county well past the 25 percent threshold required by the new federal guideline for inclusion in the MSA.

Washington County is the only Missouri county under consideration for addition to the MSA. Three Illinois counties, however, also are being considered. They are Bond, Calhoun and Macoupin counties. If they are added, and that must be approved by the budget office, the St. Louis MSA would almost be as big as the state of New Hampshire.

Reed, along with Associate Commissioners Gary Yount and Kevin Isgriggs, believe being added to the MSA could mean Washington County would become more attractive to businesses that want to locate near the conveniences of a metropolitan area or would like to market goods or services there.

“I think it would be a good thing for Washington County,” Reed said. “It could help us with economic and industrial development. I don’t really see a down side to it.”

Yount, who did his share of commuting to St. Louis, agrees that it would have a positive effect on the county. He can see the county qualifying for more federal assistance for economic development and infrastructure improvements.

Isgriggs and Yount are particularly hopeful that one benefit would be more money for road and bridge work in the county.

According to the Census Bureau, inclusion in the MSA makes the counties eligible for forms of federal aid that range from health care to housing to education. An official of that agency also agreed with the commissioners that it can be beneficial for industrial and commercial development.

“It matters because the counties will be reflected in the data published about the MSA,” said Mike Ratcliffe, chief of the population distribution branch of the Census Bureau. “Being in an MSA can be an advantage because now you’re a part of a list businesses use.”

“Being added to the air quality zone is a completely different matter,” Reed said. “I had the license bureau in Sullivan when Franklin County was added and it was nothing but a headache for those people.”

Isgriggs agreed on that point, saying, “That would have done nothing good for Washington County. It would have created additional hardship and the cost of emission testing and controls.”

That battle isn’t over yet, the commissioners said. Even though the DNR has recommended the air quality zone not be extended to include Washington, St. Francois and Ste. Genevieve counties as well as three other counties, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has the final word.

“We have to keep on top of this,” Reed said. “We can’t forget about it.”

Reed said he wanted to commend DNR for the courage of making its recommendation. He believes the agency looked at the situation realistically and decided expanding the zone is not justified at this time, based on the criteria set down by EPA and the state.

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