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St. Louis Kicks Off Vetting Companies Interested In Leasing Lambert Airport

St. Louis Lambert International Airport. August 2018
File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Louis Airport Advisory Working Group on Friday voted to release a request for qualifications for companies interested in leasing St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

Updated at 4 p.m. with details within the Request For Qualifications.

The St. Louis Airport Advisory Working Group voted Friday to put out an official call for companies interested in a potential long-term lease of St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

With little public discussion, the group voted 3-1 to release a request for qualifications. That asks for interested parties to detail their performance history and financial ability to operate the airport. 

The head of the working group, Paul Payne, said this is the first benchmark indicating the city is moving forward with the process of considering leasing the airport.

“The notion of going forward with the process suggests that there’s potential out there — but you don’t know, because you’re never going to know until you actually receive a proposal,” he said. 

Payne said he does not know how many companies may be interested.

Taken at 1520 market on 10/04
Credit Corinne Ruff / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
The Airport Advisory Working Group voted 3-1 Friday in favor of releasing a request for qualifications to begin vetting companies interested in operating the airport.

The city’s deadline to receive responses to the RFQ is Nov. 1. Payne said once the working group goes through those, it will narrow down the list. If a company meets the requirements set out by the city, it may be asked to submit a request for proposals, including a detailed plan for how it would operate the airport.

The only no vote on the RFQ came from Comptroller Darlene Green’s designee, LaTaunia Kenner. Spokesman Tyson Pruitt said the comptroller has “no confidence this process will yield an outcome supportive of public interest.”

“The problem with issuing an RFQ is that we know the process has been driven by and for special interest,” he said. “So when you’re setting up parameters that appease special interests, the results you’re going to get back from that process — the RFQ — are still going to be shaped by that interest.”

Linda Martinez, the mayor’s designee, also announced Friday that the working group had reached a tentative agreement with airlines representing over 80% of the airport's traffic and 85% of the airport’s weighted cargo. 

While the agreement doesn’t lock the airlines in to a potential transaction, the group needed buy-in from a majority of the airlines to proceed with the exploratory process. A spokesman for the group said the percentage of airlines on board is likely to increase. 

The vote Friday comes after a three-hour, closed-door meeting with consultants on Wednesday. The working group planned to vote then, but announced it needed more time to think over the information presented.

What's in the RFQ?

From a broad view, the Request for Qualifications lays out the potential opportunities of a privatization deal, and it asks companies to explain how they’re qualified to achieve those things. 

According to the document, there are three main objectives:

  • Improvement of the airport, including the use of excess capacity
  • Net cash proceeds to the city either upfront or over time for non-airport services
  • Community and economic development in the region 

The airport has more than 1,000 acres available for commercial development, and according to the document, existing bond refinancings have held the airport back from developing the land on its own.

With a developer though, the city sees potential to develop that unused airfield and land with cargo activity or non-aeronautical activities like logistics, distribution or retail and office space. 

The RFQ also lays out the potential to revamp retail and concessions at the airport. And the city expects any deal with a private operator to include a near-term capital improvement program.

Money is also an important consideration. As an enterprise fund, the airport uses the money it makes for payroll and upkeep, and only a certain amount — right now about $6.7 million — per year can be used for non-airport city services. 

The RFQ also includes a number of specific questions for interested companies about their ability to improve and manage airports on budget, maintain productive relationships with government entities and express knowledge of airport safety.

The document also puts in place certain parameters on any potential deal. For instance, a private operator would have to follow the city’s minority business enterprise and women’s business enterprise requirements and offer all city employees jobs at their current salary.

Current advisors to the city, including Grow Missouri — which has been footing the bill so far for the privatization process — are not allowed to participate or advise teams submitting a bid.

All submissions are expected to remain confidential until the end of the RFQ process.

Follow Corinne on Twitter:@corinnesusan

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Corinne is the economic development reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.