An Open Letter to Mayor Slay & Co. Executive Steve Stenger
July 7, 2015
This letter is to Mayor Slay of St. Louis and St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger. I hope it is well received.
I moved to the city of St. Louis in June of 2012 after being lucky enough to be a recipient of an Arch Grant in its inaugural class.
That sentence in and of itself is a loaded statement- a non profit in a U.S. Midwestern city gave me $50,000 non dilutive cash for free- just for moving my new startup to downtown St. Louis. Nowhere in the nation was anything like this happening in 2012. I was elated and couldn’t wait to meet the other entrepreneurs that were attracted to St. Louis after winning their grants.
I could not wait to see what kind of a progressive, forward looking city St. Louis was.
When I was looking for a place to live, I found myself standing at the corner of Washington & 7th downtown. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Empty storefronts were everywhere. Still, there was a Pi Pizza on the corner of 6th & Washington a block away, and an Embassy Suites hotel next to the building. As I pondered, I heard an expletive shouted and a loud, banging noise.
I turned around and standing across the street from me was some young dude, twentyish, clearly homeless and high as a kite on… something. He was screaming at some information dispenser in front of the little tourism office on that corner and punching it as hard as he could. Most of the words he said weren’t words, except for f-bombs. I yelled at him with a loud, “HEY!” He looked at me, muttered, and staggered off to new adventures.
I thought to myself, “THIS is where I am moving?”
I am happy to report that the corner of Washington Ave & 7th street in downtown St. Louis is AWESOME. In the three years I’ve been in St. Louis, several restaurants have opened along with the fantastic MX Movie theater. A museum dedicated to blues music is coming soon.
To me, 7th & Wash ave is indicative of the energy and power of the city I have grown to love over the past three years. Where once Washington Ave had a few seedy bars and downtown was empty, there are now great restaurants, the Culinaria grocery is open on 9th, and T-Rex, the beating heart of the startup ecosystem in St. Louis, is packed to the gills with entrepreneurs creating new businesses.
If T-Rex is St. Louis’ entrepreneurial beating heart, the CIC & Cortex is its brain. Here there is a vibrant CAMPUS of coworking. Cutting edge biotech companies so leading edge you’ll bleed if you touch them (no worries- they’ll repair the damage with some awesome new tech using your own cells to grow you new skin and, maybe, a new iPhone too).
Buttressing Wash Ave’s startup corridor is Lab1500 and Claim, also run by startup founders. TechArtista is in the Central West End. OPO Startups is in the county in St. Charles. Nebula is rocking over on Cherokee street. Industrious just opened.
Easily the visible leader in startup growth and visibility to the public, take a look at Lockerdome‘s office on Washington Ave for an example of what is going to be the typical resident of office space in our city- a dynamic, bursting at the seams startup filled with incredible talent not only from St. Louis but around the nation. THIS is how cities grow.
Downtown residency in St. Louis is at 93% and climbing- the urban blight of the past is giving way to a dynamic city bustling with growth. (Have you heard IKEA is opening in the Central West End? Retail used to eschew the city. Now they want in. #BOOM)
Our Universities are pumping out talent as well. Washington University and St. Louis University are cranking out entrepreneurs like never before and increasingly these new graduates are choosing to stay in St. Louis instead of moving back to wherever they were from before school.
One of my new favorite things to say is you can’t walk down Washington Ave swinging a dead cat around your head without hitting an entrepreneur these days, and that- THAT is a great thing. I LOVE walking down Washington Ave at different times of the day. Almost every time I do, I run into a startup founder and we usually stop and catch up for a minute before we go our separate ways and get back to work.
That is, of course, when I am physically capable of walking, and that brings me to the purpose of this letter.
I Come Inches From Death
On May 4th of 2013, I jumped in a cab with my two friends Danyelle and Lea. They came to town to visit me from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Danyelle was working in leadership of the University of Illinois’ TEC research park. We were headed to my friend Matt Menietti’s apartment (another entrepreneur) for a Cinco de Mayo BBQ.
We got into a blue Harris cab, and off we went. As we headed west on Russell and approached Gravois, our cab driver started playing with his phone. I’m not sure if he was texting, looking up directions or what, but he was definitely not watching the road. He blew though the red light, realized it too late, looked to his right and said, “OH.”
I turned my head to the right to look past Danyelle out the window and had a second and a half to realize an old school 80s van was about to hit us.
The next thing I knew, I was lying face down over Danyelle’s back while she was on her knees bent over her chair (the taxi was a minivan.) My left foot was wrenched under my
seat and wouldn’t come out. I managed to push myself off Danyelle, tried to speak, but couldn’t. Shock is a crazy thing- I hadn’t realized for the first three or four seconds I was hurt and then suddenly that was ALL I was aware of. I thought maybe my leg was broken. My arm too. I couldn’t move. Good Samaritans rushed to the cab and ripped the door open, which wasn’t too hard because it was so crunched.
I nearly died. The left side of my pelvis was destroyed. My chest bone was broken. My brachial artery in my right arm was severed (the artery that moves blood from your chest to your arm) and as a result my arm started swelling like a balloon as my artery shot out blood like a garden hose. (I would find out much later the doctors had not wanted to tell me at the time that I almost lost my arm. It was touch and go for days in the hospital as my arm shrank back to its normal size after a stent was put inside my arm).
My nose was broken. My shoulder was devastated and the tendons and muscles in my right arm were ripped off my shoulder and arm bones.
I will never forget the ambulance ride to the hospital before I finally passed out. Danyelle and I were in the ambulance. D didn’t know it yet, but her ribs were broken and had punctured her lungs so she was having an incredibly hard time speaking.
As the EMTs cut away my jeans to assess the damage, I kept saying, “My friend Danyelle is hurt. Help her.” and the EMTs kept telling me she was there with me and she would gasp out “I’m here Ed. I’m here, it’s ok” between painful breaths.
The EMT giving me oxygen snapped me out of it when he said, “Is there a Priest, Pastor or someone similar we can reach for you?”
Everything stopped in my mind. I asked, afraid for the answer, “Am I going to die?” The EMT said to me, “Not if we can help it, Sir,” and I was briefly reminded, of all things, Ronald Reagan being shot when I was a kid. As he was rushed to the ER, he opened his eyes, saw the doctors around him that were going to save his life and famously said, “I sure hope you guys are Republicans.”
I looked at the EMT and said, “Good, because I’m not dying.”
The next thing I knew I woke up in the hospital with my right leg suspended in the air by rope, a large metal pole was stuck through my left knee, my right arm looked like a balloon, my fingers were three times their normal size, my shoulder was immobilized, I had a neck brace on and I was convinced I had to get out. My Mom was there, and I was able to croak out a few questions. (She had gotten the call and raced down to St. Louis from Chicago with my sister and had to visit three hospitals before they found me due to a wrinkle in HIPAA)
“Mom, do you love me?”
She said, “Of course I do. Just rest, you’ll be okay now.”
I said, “Oh good because you need to get me out of here, I know what they are doing.”
She looked at me and said, “What do you mean?”
I whispered, “They are cutting off people’s heads and turning them into robots” (Morphine is a magical drug).
I woke again some time the next day.
The Spirit of St. Louis
Over the following months, I had a steady stream of visitors from across the entrepreneurial spectrum. My friend (Arch Grants founder and my attorney) Jerry Schlichter was there on Day One. Rick Holton from Cultivation Capital made it in. (He’s hard to miss even on morphine. By some accounts, the man is 12 feet tall). Brian and Carol Matthews and Kyle Welborn made it. My very good friends I made in the first cohort of Arch Grants were there not just at the beginning but came in to see me throughout. My good friends Caryn, Jan, Liz and Dan from Lab1500 not only kept my business going they came in to see me often over the next six months.
Aubrey Betz came in to read me Game of Thrones, even after she knew I could barely focus on her voice and was asleep half the time. My good friend and sounding board Jenny Dibble was there too. Jan and Dan liked to make audio recordings of me babbling on morphine. Ask them to play you the funny one if you know them. Liz kept me sane by outright lying to me so I wouldn’t panic about my condition while she coordinated visits so I wouldn’t be alone too long and freak out and demand to be released, hip or no hip.
My friend Sarah Spear (then Exec Dir of Arch Grants) brought me lots and lots of Oreos, and I got to meet her beautiful new Baby.
Allison, Jon, Matt and Arnoldo came to the nursing home I was in months later and played piano for me and brought me toys. Anton Xavier brought me books- books I wasn’t able to read because my cognitive abilities were so compromised at the time I would just stare at the pages, re-reading paragraphs over and over until it tired me out.
Ola brought me a fruit basket. (Great when you are living on hospital food).
A few months later, as the dressing for my wound (hospital terms) was being changed by the wound nurse (it’s a real title)- it means I was naked from the waist down lying on my stomach while my foot and a half long surgery incision was getting a new bandage, Lu from Immunophotonics brought me more Oreos. You tend to never forget the moments people visit when you are naked, and by naked I don’t mean the good, this is awesome, naked.
I am humbled to say a revolving door of friends, relatives, entrepreneurs and others in the entrepreneurial ecosystem came to see me. Jay DeLong almost didn’t believe me when he visited and I was still in a wheel chair but somehow had managed to start dating my attractive (if I say so myself) Occupational Therapist that worked on my hip every day for hours. He thought it was a joke- how did my crippled self do that FROM A WHEELCHAIR?? (It was my Disarming Charm, Jay. Duh.)
You get the idea. My life was forever altered.
The Cancer of St. Louis, AKA Metropolitan Taxi Commission
I spent a total of six months hospitalized. After I got out, I spent the next two years (and counting) of trying to get my life back. It could have happened to anyone in any city.
I have had to have surgeries since being released back into the world. Every time I would start to feel like I was getting healthy, a new setback would crop up. The most recent was May of this year. My right arm would not stop going numb- the stent in my arm had failed and I needed emergency surgery, AGAIN, to save my arm. A vein was taken out of my right leg and implanted into my right arm to repair the artery. Thankfully, the surgery worked- it wasn’t an option in 2013 because I was so close to death and had so many other injuries the surgeon in the ER had to save my arm immediately with a stent or I would have lost it.
So as I author this letter to you, city leaders, I am trying to heal and am having a hell of a hard time walking, sitting, breathing, existing. Every day is pain. In public, friends always ask how I feel. I say, “Oh, I’m getting there” because who really wants to hear doom and gloom? I’ll say it here to keep driving home the point- I am in pain. Every. Day.
The whole time I was hospitalized, friends would make jokes and say, “Well, you’re going to own a cab company now,” or, “at least you’ll get your bills covered. There’s no way you lose this case. Just get better.”
Except I wasn’t going to be okay because Harris cab did NOT have insurance on their cab. The reason is that they are insolvent- I can say this because it’s on the public record and they have said it in court. Their insurer refused to cover the cab because of all the other unpaid bills Harris cab had with them.
It turns out bills want to be paid whether you are in the hospital or not. You should see my credit report. It’s damaged like my body- not dead but it sure as hell isn’t sterling. It will be amazing if I get a mortgage before I’m dead (ideally of old age and not Harris cab).
Harris cab stole my health, ruined my credit, made it nearly impossible to run my business as I went through periods of intense pain and lethargy from said pain stopping me from being effective every day.
I had a VC prepared to fund my company, Techli, this year. My goal is to grow a large new media organization covering innovation in between the coasts. We had agreed to terms and all that was left was to sign the term sheet- and then I landed in the hospital three times in April & May. My VC was very respectful, and I know the game so I understood when he said, “I am really sorry, but based on your health complications right now I need to pass on funding. I’m really sorry but need to be responsible to the people entrusting me with their money.” Awesome. Another blow courtesy of Harris cab. Yet Harris is still on the road. (*Not being funded matters not. I have more tenacity than that- I’ll do it alone if I have to).
Harris cab has not paid one cent in penalties due to their negligence. Not. One. Cent. They have not had any legal consequences as a result. NONE. They have multiple judgements against them they cannot pay, they have liens against them, and Jami Dolby of Harris likes to lecture people about the rules and special treatment for companies.
They are still in business today, just one more accident away from ruining someone else’s life.
Enter the Metro Taxi Commission. The Metro Taxi Commission is a throwback to the bad old days of protectionist cronyism. It exists not to, as it says, regulate the cab industry in St. Louis, it exists to protect the cab companies from ever having to allow competition into St.Louis. Half the board is made up of owners of cab companies.
As you can imagine, when ride sharing companies Lyft and Uber tried to come to town, the MTC went into overdrive trying to stop them. This is an embarassment for St. Louis, as evidenced in this interview I did with the legendary Robert Scoble and legendary VC Paul Graham’s tweet.
The drama of this played out in the news as I watched with interest from afar. After all, this is my beat. I didn’t take action, mostly because the past two years have- well, you’ve read this far. You understand. I have been weak and tired. I assumed like all cities, eventually it would get worked out and ride sharing (and the 21st century) would finally come to St. Louis.
Then, just last week, St. Louis Public Radio had a story on air about Uber coming to town. MTC board member Chris Sommers shot me a message that said, “You’re going to want to hear Public Radio right now.”
I turned it on and I heard THIS:
Jami Dolby, operations manager at Harris Cab, put it simply. “I think the focal point of this discussion…is simply an old kindergarten rule: Follow the rules,” she said. “For me,” she continued, “never before have I seen so many elected officials allow one company to say, let’s skirt the rules….And why would anyone want someone that’s in a lawmaking position to allow one company to come in, and to say, for you, because it’s trendy, you don’t have to follow the rules?”
My jaw dropped. My Mom and nephew were with me from Chicago for the holiday weekend and my Mom saw my face. It’s known in my family as, “Ed’s War Face.” I have never been accused of being boring, and it’s because I run hot. I am passionate about what I believe and when I heard Jami Dolby so casually chastising lawmakers for NOT FOLLOWING THE RULES when her company is a borderline criminal organization, I couldn’t believe it. (What would you call a company that maims its clients and never has to pay anyone, ever, because they are “insolvent?”)
I was transformed from passive consumer of the news to activist in one sound bite. I called the listener line for Public Radio but my call never made it on the air as I called near the end of the segment.
I immediately grabbed my laptop and searched for Jami Dolby on Twitter. Nothing. I kept searching, and then I saw this display of leadership in the news around this issue:
A quick Google search showed me Lou Hamilton was head of the MTC Board, and this tweet told me all I needed to know.
Chris Sommers is on the board of the MTC and like me, is a progressive. We met when I interviewed him for my online interview series with entrepreneurs in St. Louis. We have both lived in San Francisco and had other things in common and have remained in touch since. Chris has been challenging his fellow board members to embrace change, and they have been fighting him every step of the way like a child fighting bedtime.
Previously, I had tried to engage with the MTC by mailing typed out letters on dead trees to the MTC board members to get them to hear my story and talk to me to effect change. “Surely,” I thought, “they will listen to someone with my story.” I sent them letters, because letters are the only form of communication the MTC has said they will accept on the ride sharing issue. They ignored me. Corrupt politicians don’t answer citizens when they think they are above the law.
I know how to use social media, but first I weighed the risks of what I was thinking of doing. I didn’t know anything about Lou Hamilton but assumed he was politically connected in St. Louis if he had the position he did. I knew there could be fallout. I have to do business in St. Louis. I didn’t want to look unbalanced or crazy. Then I laughed, loudly. (I do everything loud). What could he do to me? Cripple me? Ruin my finances? Throw my business off track?
Because they are large and turn slowly like I do, I imagined a battleship and swivelled my metaphorical guns at Lou Hamilton and went full blast on twitter:
The response was immediate, and I was floored to start receiving support like never before. Journalists from around the world started watching. A Wired UK reporter followed me (Big Geek cred moment for me. Love Wired). Our new Facebook group has several hundred members already. The point is, ride sharing is HUGE- bigger than any one company- and right now the world’s journalists are watching St. Louis through my Twitter stream. They want to know, “What’s the deal with St. Louis, MO USA?”
In. St. Louis, the effect was also immediate. Friends reached out to say, “FINALLY someone is challenging these guys head on,” and privately, I heard more. People I have never met have reached out to me- politicians and civilians alike. All of them progressive, wanting to live in a vibrant, forward looking city instead of the past.
Mayor Slay and County Executive Steve Stenger
I am happy to say that Mayor Slay has come out in support of Uber in St. Louis, and I am meeting Steve Stenger in two days to discuss this issue as well. Both of them have recognized the importance of this issue to the whole region.
The public, media, everyone should be aware of how great it is to see St. Louis’ two biggest political leaders ready to engage on this issue. The public should be pleased we have these two serving us.
Originally, I was calling for abolishment of the MTC. In my research over the last week, I have made myself a legal scholar on all things MTC related and have since realized it would take the state government to remove the MTC. In light of that I have talked with many people in the community much smarter than I and have come up with a modest list of proposals that I and many more believe would serve to solve the current crisis.
Here then, are my proposals:
1. MTC Board Chief Lou Hamilton resigns his post or is replaced by Steve Stenger (He is the lead executive and the MTC has failed. The buck stops with him)
2. Steve Stenger places two new, progressive members to the Board of the MTC of his choice. One to replace Hamilton, one to fill a current vacancy
3. Cab company owners publicly recuse themselves from voting on MTC Terms & Conditions
In addition to the above proposals, I also ask that:
1. A State audit of the MTC’s investigation into Harris cab is undertaken. They have said in court they are insolvent.
2. MTC ends its relationship with Ed Rhode. He got his PR position without a proper RFP vetting process.
3. Sunshine Law request into whether or not Board Chair Hamilton’s other clients (such as the Cardinals and Anheuser Busch) have recieved preferential treatment or influence by the MTC
4. The Board of Alderman stop negotiating with Chair Hamilton. Ideally, the Aldermen will publicly come out in support of these proposals and tweet their intention to do so- that way there will be no confusion as to their position.
I sincerely hope that my story, my recent activism, and these proposals are taken in the spirit in which they are intended. I fully realize I came across as angry and loud on Twitter. I tried to draw attention to my plight politely and was summarily ignored. I used the bully pulpit of Twitter to make my voice heard and draw attention.
Now that the city and region are focused on this issue, it is my sincere hope change is possible for the city I have fallen in love with and now call my own.
Let’s move St. Louis Forward!
Founder, Startup Voodoo
Arch Grants 2012 Recipient
Citizen of St. Louis