Dallas - When St. Louis broke away from its county in 1878, city officials didn't think they were abandoning much.

St. Louis county was a largely undeveloped area run by politicians believed to be corrupt, while the metropolis of St. Louis was thriving as the gateway to the West and a busy port on the Mississippi River.

But more than a century later, the decision of city fathers to permanently separate the city and county may not seem like such a good idea.

The city, bounded by the Mississippi River to the East and surrounded on all other sides by the county, had a natural limit for expansion and economic growth. But the county, on the other hand, had plenty of room and boomed as the St. Louis-area business activity spilled over.

"They assured that their boundaries were permanently set," said Tom Irwin, a top official with St. Louis County. "Nobody then ever dreamed that the city would ever grow to its legal boundaries."

But it did. And beginning in the 1950s, the post-World War II migration that transformed major cities across the United States affected St. Louis as well. Thousands gravitated to the good life, to the suburbs that were once little more than rural outposts.

Today, the county has a growing middle-class population of 900,000 people, while St. Louis has a shrinking, poorer population of about one-third that size. In the last four decades, the city has lost more than half its population.

The fact that the county and city do not share overlapping jurisdictions is almost unique among major metropolitan areas. Only Baltimore and Montgomery County are comparable.

For St. Louis County, the decline of the city since the 1950s is a valuable lesson in how to sustain growth. In fact, urbanites have been moving out of the county to the west, along a development corridor that follows Interstate 70 toward Kansas City.

"The county is in a position that in many respects is like the city was in 1950. The county is sitting tall, " said Mr. Irwin. "If the city had developed different strategies in the 1950s, I think things would be different today."

However, the county plans to learn from the mistakes it believes St. Louis made. For instance, rather than allow the housing stock to decline, the bounty and its 90 suburbs are pushing to maintain and improve housing through tougher zoning and codes.

Lending a Creditworthy Hand

But they also learned that the city and county must work together, rather than fight, if both are to prosper.

"I never understood some of the political dichotomy between the city and the county," said St. Louis County Executive George (Buzz) Westfall, who has stressed cooperation with neighboring counties, as well as the city. "I don't really try to compete with them. I really try to cooperate."

The Cervantes Convention Center in downtown St. Louis is a good example. Last year, the success of a $265 million bond-financed expansion of the facility, which included a new 70,000-seat domed stadium, hinged on the county.

Half the bonds sold by the St. Louis Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority were backed by annual appropriations of triple-A-rated Missouri. One-fourth was backed by the barely investment-grade city.

The final fourth was secured by the pledge of a voter-approved hotel and motel tax, but investment bankers were skeptical that the commitment would be enough to float the deal. Mr. Westfall came to the rescue by agreeing that the county would use other revenues to offset any shortfalls.

"The deal would not have flown without Buzz," said a St. Louis investment banker who was part of the transaction. "With his support, the county was squarely behind the bonds."

Mr. Westfall said the expansion was important most directly to downtown St. Louis, which has staked much of its future growth on the continued development of the hospitality industry.

"Downtown St. Louis is our downtown, too," said the Democratic leader. "If we hurt the city, we hurt ourselves."

A few years ago, however, county executives did not always feel that way. During much of the 1980s, the county, then under Republican leadership, worked to build their own domed stadium in hopes of keeping the football Cardinals. The plan never got off the ground.

While the city and county were squabbling, the Cardinals packed up and moved to Phoenix. Now, with an emphasis on regional cooperation, the two hope to bring football back to St. Louis by winning one of the National Football League's future expansion franchises, and gain a tenant for the new stadium.

There were other times in the last decade when common problems brought city and county officials together. In the mid-1980s, both agreed to merge their public hospital systems into one unit. By many estimates, the merger has been a model for others.

More recently, city and county leaders wanted to create a regional economic development authority financed with a utility tax. Voters, however, rejected the idea.

Eventually, Mr. Westfall believes the city and county may reunite, though it may be at least a decade away.

"Many of the more enlightened people in the area think it was a mistake for the city and county to ever break up," he said. "If we cooperate incrementally, the more likely it is that we will reunite."

Adds his aide, Mr. Irwin: "Benjamin Franklin said that we either hang together or we hang separately. We need to remember that. "

The county and city have never stopped sharing problems or economies. Even so, both are viewed quite differently by Wall Street analysts. The city, which has suffered from the flight of middle-class families to the county, has been left with little industrial base and a population that is increasingly poor and elderly.

As a result, St. Louis carries a Baa rating from Moody's Investors Service and a BBB from both Fitch investors Service and Standard & Poor's Corp.

The county, meanwhile, is rated AA-plus by Fitch and Aa1 by Moody's. Standard & Poor's does not rate the county's GOs.

Analysts say both entities are well managed, but their situations are far different.

Richard Raphael, managing director at Fitch, said that while the city has a contracting economic base, the county is growing. Also, the city has major infrastructure needs with restrictive voter requirements for approving capital programs, while the opposite is true for St. Louis County.

"The county is in a strong financial position." he said. "The city has managed well, but they have a very restrained situation."

Steven Bocamazzo, vice president at Moody's Investors Service, added: "The county has now become the population and employment center for the metropolitan area."

Both have been hard hit by layoffs in the defense and auto sectors, the two most important industries for the region.

For example, McDonnell Douglas Corp., the largest employer in the county, has reduced its workforce by 10,000 jobs over the past two years. Still, the county's unemployment rate has remained below state and national averages.

"When we lost 4,000 defense jobs at once, we went back and looked at the situation and found that nearly all of those people had remained in the county." said Mr. Irwin. "They had not left the area."

Not everyone believes the disparity in ratings is fair. St. Louis Comptroller Virvus Jones has been critical of what he sees as saddling the city with all the problems and the county with all the positives in the region.

"Even though we may be the straw that stirs the milkshake, we don't get credit for that," Mr. Jones has said in the past. The rating agencies "look at the St. Louis region and give St. Louis county a double-A, but they saddle us with all the problems."

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