Dashing the last, fleeting hopes that the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NGA) new $1 billion western headquarters (NextNGAWest) might end up in Metro East, the Government Accountability Office (NGA) last week concluded the spy agency properly followed federal guidelines in selecting a site just north of downtown St. Louis.
However, the report also hints that NGA officials really wanted a location just north of Scott Air Force Base in St. Clair County and that location may really have been the most appropriate site for the new high-tech intelligence facility.
Described in official filings with the state of Missouri as potentially the largest construction project in St. Louis history, NextNGAWest has been the focus of an intense battle between political and business interests in Metro-East and the City of St. Louis.
The top-secret facility will gather data from a planned, massive new network of government and privately-own satellites, which the NGA will then make available to the military, federal agencies, and other entities.
The NGA campus is expected to initially employ 2,000 workers at an average annual salary of around $78,000 and expand rapidly; spurring industrial, residential and retail development in the surrounding area.
Internal NGA documents, uncovered by local media outlets, suggest agency officials had always intended to locate their new facility next to Scott AFB, which is already the site of some related intelligence operations.
However, federal regulations required the NGA to consider multiple locations. In all, some 186 potential sites were reviewed by the agency; a roster eventually narrowed to four finalist sites in Metro East, the City of St. Louis and South St. Louis County. The St. Louis and St. Clair County sites ultimately emerged as the two serious contenders.
Director Robert Cardillo signed a Record of Decision, June 2, 2016, designating a site on St. Louis’ Near Northside as the location for NextNGAWest.
St Louis officials say the NGA ultimately selected the St. Louis location because it lies with a federally designated “Promise Zone.” The Obama administration required federal agencies to give preference in site selection to blighted, inner-city areas.
However, Metro East leaders contend St. Louis officials exerted political influence to win NextNGAWest and requested a GAO audit.
The resulting GAO report, “Analysis of Alternatives Approach for a New Site Reflects Most Characteristics of a High-Quality Process,” was released Aug. 28.
In the document, GAO investigators conclude that the NGA’s method of “selecting a site for the new NGA West campus substantially met three of the four characteristics of a high-quality, reliable” conclusion.
According to the GAO report, NGA staff used six refined criteria to evaluate the St. Louis and St. Clair County sites: (1) cost, (2) schedule, (3) security, (4) mission efficiency and expansion, (5) applicability of and compliance with federal policies, executive orders, and federal initiatives; and (6) environmental considerations.
The NGA’s analysis concluded the location near Scott AFB would offer better security than the north St. Louis site. St. Louis has some of the highest crime rates in the nation.
However, other factors — including cost, “mission efficiency and flexibility,” local laws and regulations and environmental impact — pointed to St. Louis.
However, in refining it criteria, the GAO team narrowed sub-criteria to only those that provided the greatest differentiation among the sites, according to officials on the GAO report.
For example, the security criterion was narrowed to include only three of an original 13 security and infrastructure evaluation sub-factors.
NGA staff adjusted “mission efficiency and expansion” criterion to include only one of their mission evaluation team’s 10 original mission sub-factors.
A broader evaluation might have favored the Metro East location, critics of the GAO report say.
“In commenting on a draft of this report, NGA expressed concerns about GAO’s assessment of NGA’s estimates of cost risks and sensitivities,” the GAO notes.
The complete GAO report can be accessed at https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-17-643
— St. Clair County was finalist for NGA headquarters —