ST. LOUIS — The ceremonial first shovels at Tuesday's groundbreaking ceremony won't amount to much when you consider the size and scope of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency's massive new complex going up in north St. Louis.
The 97-acre site will have two main goals, according to House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff: collect the Big Data required to map and analyze our world and open the doors to collaboration with academic and business partnerships.
"Everything that happens, happens in time and space," Director Robert Sharp said of the NGA's purpose. "It helps you see things from your perspective as to where it's happening and how it's changing over time. It's a really powerful tool that has applications in every source of business that's out there."
Every time you take a flight, open Google Maps, or call an UBER, the systems are running off of work done by the NGA.
The new St. Louis site — not far from the current, out-dated South City location — will let the agency open that information up to the public in an unprecedented way.
Sharp says 20% of the building will be open for "unclassified" work, with another 20% of the building available for flexible purposes.
Speakers at Tuesday's groundbreaking repeatedly talked about the opportunities for partnerships with local universities and businesses, citing the economic potential as a reason to keep the facility in St. Louis.
"It was a competition," Rep. Lacy Clay (D-MO) said. "It was really a competition."
Clay said the city — and state — faced stiff competition from across the river. Illinois was eager to compete for the federal investment — the largest in St. Louis' history — but the bipartisan team that showed up to the Tuesday event pushed their plan through approval almost four years ago.
"All of it had to come together," Clay said. "Think about it. President Obama represented Illinois, so that was a tough decision for him and his administration also."
One of the factors that swayed Schiff, he said, was seeing the area for himself on a site visit with Clay.
"It was clear just how dramatic the impact could be on the community, how it could be a source of jobs and improve the quality of life in the community," Schiff (D-CA) said. "It made so much sense."
Looking around the construction site which is little more than flattened earth spotted with heavy machinery and a chainlink perimeter, Schiff said he could already see signs of improvement.
"[It's] a very dramatic change since the last time I was here," Schiff said. "It was overgrown with trees and brush, and it looked like it had been untouched for decades."
Already across the street, there are signs of new businesses moving in, hoping to capitalize on some of the business opportunities that come with the new site.
Though not all attendees at the morning event were happy about construction. A small group of protestors gathered outside the event, demonstrating for the dozens of residents who lost their homes to make way for the new campus.
The NGA West facility is expected to open in 2025.