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Airport privatization election bill gets initial OK

CITY HALL – To its backers, a bill on the potential privatization of the St. Louis-Lambert International Airport would provide a chance for the public to vote on the concept and to bring hundreds of millions of dollars to disadvantaged areas.

Opponents on the Board of Aldermen say that none of the constituents they’ve spoken with want it and that the proposed plan is irresponsible.

After taking up nearly seven hours of an often-boisterous Board of Aldermen meeting discussing the topic on June 29, aldermen voted 14-11 to give the bill initial approval.

If voters approve the measure, the mayor would enter into a long-term lease for the operation and management of the airport.

Out of at least $1.7 billion the city would receive, the city would pay off an airport debt of about $700 million and have at least $1 billion for public safety, neighborhood development, job and vocational training, streets, bridges, parks, clean and livable neighborhoods, and city infrastructure, among other things.

The bill also called for a minimum annual revenue share payment of $6.5 million a year.

It didn’t impress opponents such as 24th Ward Alderman Bret Narayan.

“This is legislative malpractice,” Narayan said, in the Zoom meeting. “This is not about representing the city.”

Twentieth Ward Alderwoman Cara Spencer said the bill was a rush job. She said bidders would have to submit proposals within 30 days of passage by the voters.

“This is an extremely irresponsible plan,” Spencer said. It would give companies a short time after a public vote to turn in a plan, she said. 

While the guaranteed amount of $1 billion (after paying off the debt) seems good, it’s still less than the city’s operating budget for a year, Spencer said. The lease would be for about 50 years.

“This is an insult to our community. It’s an insult to our democracy,” Spencer said.

“Once they take their airport, they can do what they want to do,” 18th Ward Alderman Jesse Todd said. “Privatization does not work.”

Twenty First Ward Alderman John Collins Muhammad, who co-sponsored the bill with Board of Alderman President Lewis Reed, said the bill would give the public a chance to vote on whether to privatize the airport. 

“This does not mean that we’re privatizing the airport,” 23rd Ward Alderman Joseph Vaccaro said. “It has to be non-binding, but it gives us a direction.”

Some aldermen complained that some of the money going to the city would have to be spent within three years. The bill provides that half of $100 million going for streets, bridges and parks; half of $100 million for clean and livable neighborhoods; and half of $50 million for minority business assistance would have to be spent or committed within three years. They said that was not enough time. 

But 16th Ward Alderman Tom Oldenburg said the money had only to be committed, not spent.

“There is a distinction between ‘spent’ and ‘committed,’” Oldenburg said. “I have no problem believing that within three years, we could commit funding to those projects.” 

A $250 million allocation to address the root causes of crime and for safe neighborhoods would be among the ways leasing the airport would help the struggling areas, Oldenburg said.

“This allocates this to the neighborhoods that need it the most,” Muhammad said. “We can absolutely transform our neighborhoods overnight.” 

At least 65 percent of a $200 million fund for new development in distressed neighborhoods would have to be spent north of Delmar Boulevard. Another $200 million would be for job creation and training. 

Minimum amounts in other funds would be $50 million, public transit infrastructure; $40 million, city government technology modernization; and $10 million for small business loans.

Jim Merkel 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

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