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The Key to Growing St. Louis’ Economy: Growing Its Diversity

St. Louis’ population had stopped growing. That was the conclusion of a 2012 study commissioned by civic leaders who wanted to better understand the region’s development opportunities.

One of the underlying causes, the report found, was that St. Louis wasn’t attracting enough immigrants. “At the time, our foreign-born population was around five percent, whereas nationally it was over 13 percent,” says Betsy Cohen, executive director of the St. Louis Mosaic Project. “Kansas City had more, Chicago had more. And because our native-born population was stagnant, or even a little down, St. Louis was at risk of falling behind economically.”

The Mosaic Project was formed as a result of the findings of that 2012 study. Established within the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership and the World Trade Center St. Louis, the Mosaic Project works is dedicated to transforming St. Louis into the fastest-growing metropolitan area for immigration.

Their ultimate goal is to help St. Louis’ economy, population and cultural diversity grow simultaneously. Part of the Mosaic Project’s work involves matching highly skilled immigrants with employers who need those workers to fuel their own growth, and encouraging foreign-born students studying STEM fields at local universities to work stay in St. Louis to stay after graduation.

A big part of the challenge is helping foreign-born residents feel welcome. For someone resettling in the Midwest from another part of the world, the experience can feel isolating and confusing. “We do a lot to foster cross-cultural understanding and help integrate newcomers with longtime residents,” says Anna Crosslin, president and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis.

Events like the annual Festival of Nations, which is run by the International Institute, not only help expose St. Louis residents to cultures from around the world, but they also help immigrants feel a bit more at home.

Crosslin believes that fostering a higher level of cultural diversity in St. Louis makes the region more attractive to younger people who are interested in moving from more expensive and crowded cities on the coasts. “We need more young, talented professionals, and many of them grew up in population-dense, multicultural communities,” she says. “Almost half of Generation Z is multicultural or multiethnic in some way. They want to live in a city that looks familiar to them.”

It’s an effort that is supported by the local business community. As an example, Commerce Bank is a sponsor of the Festival of Nations, and through the Commerce Bancshares Foundation, it supports the International Institute’s Refugee Career Pathways program, which provides individualized career-path help to refugees and asylees.

Commerce also serves as an advocate for making St. Louis welcoming to foreign-born newcomers. “We’re located in neighborhoods that are culturally and ethnically diverse and have been for many years,” says Molly Hyland, Commerce’s senior vice president of community relations.

Cohen believes progress has been made, as St. Louis has had one of the nation’s fastest-growing immigrant populations in recent years. She adds that anyone can play a role in helping new residents feel at home. “Small gestures, like having coffee with someone or saying hello, can make a big difference,” she says.

Fortunately, she adds, “St. Louis is a very friendly region, and we see the potential people bring.”

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