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Mayor shuts down airport privatization study

ST. LOUIS – In an unexpected announcement, Mayor Lyda Krewson said Friday that she was ending the controversial process of studying the potential leasing of St. Louis Lambert International Airport to a private contractor.

Krewson said in a letter released Friday afternoon that she had asked Deputy Mayor for Development Linda Martinez, her representative on the Airport Working Group, not to support or vote or the issuance of requests for proposals from potential contractors.

Without that support, officials said, the project is dead.

Jacob Long, Krewson’s director of communications, said that the process had come to a fork in the road and that it was obvious that the support wasn’t available from the business community, elected officials or the public. He said after 18 interested companies responded to the request for proposals, now was the time to stop.

“These companies would have spent millions and millions of dollars on the [request for proposals] process, and at some point, the mayor would have wanted a public vote on this,” Long said. “That’s a lot of time and a lot of energy and a lot of money for something that has become fairly obvious to us that support for it just wasn’t there at this time.”

Krewson made the announcement in an interview on KWMU’s St. Louis on the Air. In her letter to the seven members of the Airport Working Group, Krewson said that she had inherited the idea from Mayor Francis Slay when she became mayor in April 2017. She said she had agreed to look at the concept to determine whether there could be a better airport. 

Krewson wrote that residents, business leaders and other elected officials “have expressed serious concerns and trepidation about the process, and about the possibility that a private entity might operate the airport.”

While private companies operate many airports around the world, St. Louis would be the first major airport in the country to do so, Krewson wrote.

“Being first at anything brings inherent risks and skepticism,” she added.

At the same time, she wrote, the airport has numerous needs. She said it had 1,000 unused acres of land, had almost $700 million worth of debt and would need $900 million in capital expenditures in the next 10 to 15 years. It also has an underutilized runway, and serious capacity issues. 

“Many other cities have already begun or completed major airport improvements. The business community and airlines are committed to find a way to make the major investment needed at St. Louis Lambert International Airport,” Krewson wrote. 

“We learned a lot about the needs of our airport, about how it can work for our community,” Long said, noting that the city had owned the airport for 99 years. “We need a better airport for economic development, for growth.” 

City Budget Director Paul Payne, who chairs the Airport Working Group, said the group would have to do wrap-up work after the holidays. 

Payne said the city had learned a lot through this process. 

“I’m in one respect disappointed that we’re not hearing from the particular proposers that are out there, because they had ideas for the airport,” Payne said. “But on the other hand, we’ve got a significant base of information developed over the last two years about the airport.” Those include its capital needs, its layout and what the airlines think.

Others on the working group are LaTania Kenner, who represents Comptroller Darlene Green; Gerald Hollins, representing Board of Alderman President Lewis Reed; 19th Ward Alderwoman Marlene Davis; Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge; and Michael Gavin. 

Twentieth Ward Alderwoman Cara Spencer, one of the main opponents of airport privatization, said she was pleased with the outcome.

“I’m glad. Lots of work ahead,” Spencer said in an email.

Twenty-Third Ward Alderman Joseph Vaccaro said it never should have gone this far. He said he was working with 15th Ward Alderwoman Megan Green on a bill that would stop processes such as this. The bill would call for a vote to change the city charter to call for a binding public vote on the privatization of city assets such as the airport or the Water Division.

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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