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Advisors set timetable for St. Louis Lambert privatization process

St. Louis Lambert International Airport. August 2018
File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
If all goes according to plan, there could be a proposal to lease the management of St. Louis Lambert International Airport ready for approval by the end of 2019.

The city’s Airport Advisory Working Group met for the first time Tuesday with a cadre of legal, financial and aviation experts. Together they will prepare to seek and review bids from private investors vying for a lease to manage operations at St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

The Lindbergh Conference Room overlooking the airport runways was the setting for a two-hour presentation by the outside experts. They laid out an 18-month timeline for hammering out the details of a potential public-private partnership for Lambert.

Attorneys, accountants, investment bankers and aviation consultants took turns presenting. They covered topics from research, due diligence and contract review to compliance and communication.

Representatives of city government and the airport commission form a seven-member Airport Advisory Working Group. They will have authority to approve or reject actions proposed by the larger group of outside advisors.

(See a list of all the advisors on the Fly314 website.)

LeJuan Strickland with Metropolitan Strategies and Solutions outlined an ambitious communications plan that includes conducting opinion polls and focus groups with residents of St. Louis. He said they want to gather input on the airport’s role in the community from 20,000 residents over the next 60 days. The plan expands to include residents in surrounding counties in January.

The trend towards Private-Public Partnerships

If St. Louis approves a private investor to run the airport with a multi-year lease, it would be the second U.S. airport to do so through a Federal Aviation Administration pilot program. The first was in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Michael Fleming, a partner with the Wicks Group, a Washington D.C.-based law firm, has been involved in many public-private airport partnerships around the world. He says a proposal to encourage more private investment in U.S. airports is under consideration in Congress.

“There’s a recognition in the federal government that there are more infrastructure needs in the United States’ airports than our funding mechanism through the normal process will be able to fix,” Fleming said after the advisory meeting.

Fleming added that the current administration favors a private sector solution to fund improvements at the nation’s airports.

“If we can get private investment to come in to fulfill some of those infrastructure requirements, and do that in a way that makes the airports run well and protects the interests of those cities and municipal residents, that is a new source of funding to make our infrastructure better.”

Fleming’s firm and more than a dozen others that form the outside advisor team are working on the Lambert project on the condition that they will be paid for their services if a successful privatization lease contract is approved.

Grow Missouri, Inc., the organization funded by billionaire Rex Sinquefield is paying for the advisors’ expenses and will be reimbursed by the city if and when a deal is done.

Travis Brown, president of Grow Missouri, is charged with keeping the advisor team on schedule. He said whether a deal is struck or not, it’s important to explore what private investment could mean for the city and the airport.

“The city will always own and control the airport,” Brown said. “We’re looking to see if there are other visions to expand the region. What could make for a better airport, what could provide other opportunities for investment in the city, and what could expand regional economic opportunities.”

If all goes according to plan, by the third quarter of 2019, the advisors will be reviewing bids from private companies that are qualified to manage the airport’s operations.

Any private lease agreement is subject to approval by the city government, the FAA and the airlines operating out of Lambert.

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