City bid for airport privatization leads to calls for regional governance

By Gloria Lloyd
News Editor
glorialloyd@callnewspapers.com

So far the process that could potentially lead to the privatization of the St. Louis airport is mostly a mystery, with the city of St. Louis’ closed-door discussions leading to calls by neighboring officials for greater regional control of a St. Louis-wide asset.

Although the airport is physically located in St. Louis County, it is owned by the city of St. Louis, which is its own county. Lambert takes up more than 4,000 acres in North County along Interstate 70.

In the waning days of the 16-year tenure of former St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, he recommended that the airport be privatized through a long-term lease for a public-private partnership. Since then, the city has pursued privatization under Mayor Lyda Krewson through a task force funded by billionaire megadonor Rex Sinquefield, who was also behind the Better Together city-county merger effort earlier this year.

Under the plans, the management of the airport itself would be privatized, not the ownership. The city would still own the airport, but would no longer manage it day-to-day. Instead, those duties would be contracted out to a company.

So far the St. Louis Board of Aldermen has been mostly left out of the process, leading some of the aldermen to push for public discussions on the pros and cons or a public vote on the prospect of privatizing the city’s biggest asset. U.S. Rep. William “Lacy” Clay, D-St. Louis, also asked for a public vote.

The advisory group voted in October to issue a request for qualifications, or RFQ, to seek companies interested in managing Lambert. City Comptroller Darlene Green voted against going that route. The proposals were due back Nov. 1, and city working group members have gone into closed session several times to discuss them.

Sinquefield will be reimbursed by the city for hiring the consultants, but only if the city privatizes the airport. One of those consultants is former County Executive Charlie Dooley’s chief adviser Mike Jones, who also serves on the Missouri Board of Education.

If the St. Louis airport is privatized, it would be the “most prominent” airport in the continental United States to go private, according to city documents.

Privately managed airports are rare in the United States, but they’re common in Europe. In the U.S., only the Puerto Rico airport has seen its management privatized, and only one airport — in Branson — is owned and operated privately and has been built with private dollars.

Lambert is already one of the few airports in the country that has its profits directed to the city that owns it rather than back into the airport. The city takes roughly $6.5 million a year from airport revenue and transfers it to the city general fund. It is prohibited from taking any more by federal legislation passed decades ago that banned skimming airport profits for local government coffers, but the law grandfathers St. Louis city’s airport transfers.

City officials are interested in privatizing because the airport could turn into even more of a cash cow for the city.

The federal grandfather clause that allows those $6.5 million payments to continue every year could be changed in the future to ban the practice. But federal law allows all the profits from a privately-run airport to be redirected to city coffers.

That was one of the primary reasons for privatization given by the “Fly 314 Coalition” working group of consultants and a city committee, which has met since August 2018. The process has been widely criticized for a lack of openness and transparency, with most substantial discussions held behind closed doors. Over objections from Green, the task force went into closed session to discuss environmental issues around the airport Nov. 20, as it has many other times. Closed-session minutes of those meetings are not posted on the coalition’s website, but officials on the working group promised they will talk more in public in the future.

But since what happens inside the airport reverberates beyond its fences throughout St. Louis, the current process is causing concern throughout those neighboring cities, counties and even states, Bridgeton Mayor Terry Briggs said at the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis meeting held at Green Park City Hall Nov. 21.

The airport borders several North County cities, including Bridgeton, St. Ann, Edmundson, Berkeley, Hazelwood and Overland.

Briggs noted that half of Bridgeton was once taken for a new runway, and county residents rely on the airport for jobs, transportation and economic development for Fortune 500 and other companies.

Given that importance, the Muni League executive committee believes the airport should be governed as a “regional asset,” not run solely by the city.

“Most of the passengers, the cargo, the freight, everything, comes from either St. Louis County or St. Charles, Jefferson or Franklin” counties, Briggs said. “So it’s our belief that the airport should be run by a true regional authority.”

The St. Louis County Council unanimously passed a resolution Nov. 5 urging more regional and public participation in airport privatization, but the county Port Authority voted Nov. 21 to delay commissioning a study examining privatization (see article on Page 1A).

The council urged the city to be more transparent in its airport discussions and hold a non-binding referendum in the city on whether the airport should be privatized.

“The County Council ardently believes that no decision regarding the potential privatization or other substantial changes to the airport should be made without the concurrence of St. Louis County,” the council wrote in the resolution.

The council added, “The potential benefits and opportunities of the airport are not limited to the city of St. Louis, and the potential detrimental impacts of uninformed or non-inclusive decisions are not confined to the city of St. Louis, but materially and substantially effect (sic) St. Louis County and the many counties and entities in the heartland of the United States… The current policy of the city of St. Louis to pursue privatization of such a critical element of regional economic growth and quality of life without ensuring that the interests of St. Louis County and all those affected by such a decision is unwise, unwarranted and detrimental to the future of the St. Louis region.”

In an opinion piece for the St. Louis Business Journal, St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann argued that the airport is a regional asset that should come under regional governance, noting that city residents make up only 12 percent of the St. Louis metropolitan population of 2.5 million.