ST. LOUIS — A secret government agency that played a critical role in the hunt for Osama bin Laden says it plans to build a new facility in the St. Louis area to replace an aging structure in the city.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, an arm of the U.S. Defense Department, confirmed to the Post-Dispatch on Wednesday that it was scouting locations in St. Louis city and elsewhere in the metro region.
The little-known agency, headquartered in the Washington area, has long had major operations in St. Louis and Arnold. The agency plans to keep its Arnold facility and build a new building to replace the location at 3200 South Second Street in St. Louis.
The agency employs 3,000 people at the city site.
“We are absolutely committed to the St. Louis metro,” said Christine Phillips, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s chief news and information officer.
Phillips confirmed that the agency is looking at sites across the area. She said she couldn’t disclose the locations, which could include Illinois. Illinois already houses a major defense installation at Scott Air Force Base.
“They’re all in the St. Louis metro area, but they are both in and outside the city limits,” Phillips said.
The St. Louis facility is considered one of the oldest in the intelligence community. It is tucked into an area along the Mississippi River just south of the Anheuser-Busch complex.
Phillips characterized problems with the current facility as “old building stuff.”
“It will be more cost effective to build a new facility than it would be to try to make the existing facility compatible with current and evolving technology and to address ongoing maintenance issues,” she said.
The prospect of the agency leaving the city promises to be a controversial topic among area leaders. The Veterans Affairs Administration recently announced it would shutter its regional office in downtown St. Louis and move 800 jobs to Overland in St. Louis County.
The announcement also comes as economic development leaders in the city and the county have pledged to cooperate, rather than compete, for jobs and businesses.
U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, whose House district includes the city, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Jeff Rainford, chief of staff to St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, said the mayor recently met with the agency’s national director, Letitia A. Long.
“They understand how bad we want it in the city,” Rainford said. “We think we are going to get a fair hearing on it.”
St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern, reached on Wednesday night, would not comment on whether his county was courting the agency. The move out of urban areas has been controversial because it runs counter to the goals of the Obama administration’s “livable communities” initiative, which aims to foster dense urban areas, reduce sprawl and pollution, and keep jobs near areas served by mass transit.
Phillips said the agency expects to decide on a site in 2016 and complete the move in 2021 or 2022. She said it was looking at various factors, including location (zoning, neighborhood quality, commuting impact), infrastructure (power, traffic and transportation, availability of utilities), development suitability (cost impacts, design restrictions, expansion capability, environmental impacts) and quality of site (configuration, size, topography).
She said there wasn’t a projected cost for the facility.
The government doesn’t release the agency’s budget for security reasons, but information revealed by NSA leaker Edward Snowden showed the agency’s 2013 budget was $4.9 billion. It recently built a reported $1.8 billion headquarters in Springfield, Va., that houses 8,500 employees.
The agency performs several important tasks in the intelligence community, including analysis of satellite intelligence to support defense objectives. The agency helped defense forces pinpoint bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound in Pakistan and helped build a replica of the terrorist’s home before U.S. forces raided it and killed him.
Those top-secret missions make the hunt for office space particularly unique.
“It’s not like they are looking for a simple office building,” said Rainford. “We are mindful of that.”
Lewis Reed, the president of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, said he will introduce a resolution on Friday asking the agency “to make staying within the city of St. Louis their first priority.”
“The prospect of losing over 3,000 jobs at one time certainly concerns me and should concern every resident of the city,” Reed said. “Losing one of the city’s largest employers means the loss of millions annually in earnings tax revenues alone. The potential impact on city service delivery we can only speculate on at this point, but we know residents will feel it.”
Follow reporter Nick Pistor on Twitter at www.twitter.com/nickpistor