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St. Louis Residents Won’t Vote On Airport Privatization This November After All

St. Louis Lambert International Airport. August 2018
File photo / Carolina Hidalgo / St. Louis Public Radio
After months of pushing airport privatization in St. Louis, the group behind a controversial ballot initiative wants it removed from the Nov. 3 ballot.

Airport privatization is once again off the table — at least for now.

The group behind a controversial ballot initiative issued a request Wednesday for the St. Louis Board of Elections to remove it from the Nov. 3 ballot. It would have asked voters to decide whether the city should lease St. Louis Lambert International Airport to a private operator.

St. Louis Rising, led by the St. Louis City NAACP and the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council, said in a statement Wednesday now isn’t a good time to pursue the issue.

“While we are proud of this effort, the rising number of COVID-19 cases and the current political climate require that we focus our time and attention on other critical decisions on the November 3rd ballot,” according to the statement.

Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis City NAACP, said the group’s four-member committee of petitioners gave unanimous support to withdraw the petition.

He said he’s focused on three or four other ballot initiatives, including one regarding the residency requirement for St. Louis police officers and other emergency responders. He also said it’s more important to focus on fighting COVID-19 in Black communities.

But Pruitt is still planning to pursue airport privatization, which he argues is the best way to alleviate poverty and blight in the city’s north side. For now, he said the issue is “too divisive.”

“The issue is, is that based on the division, do we take a risk of having this internal fight within the Board of Aldermen, and maybe even within the Black community and within the labor community?” he asked.

Pruitt said he wants to reconcile the differences between his petition and a similar bill sitting in limbo at the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, sponsored by President Lewis Reed. But Mary Goodman, a spokesperson for Reed, said in an email there’s no need.

“Since it was apparent that this was going to be on the ballot, we wanted to make sure that an option that represented the interests of the city and protected the city was in place. However since it appears they are not moving forward, there isn't a need for the measure from the BOA.”

Over the past few months, supporters of airport privatization have touted the idea as the answer to many of the cash-strapped city’s problems — pledging to put at least $1 billion from the lease proceeds toward improving the city’s underdeveloped north side.

But economic uncertainty brought on by the pandemic has lowered the airport’s valuation, according to local billionaire Rex Sinquefield, who has heavily funded airport privatization efforts. In a statement, he threw support behind the decision to remove the ballot initiative.

“Now is not the right time. I continue to believe the concept is good for the city,” he said.

Sinquefield is a heavy donor to political organization Pelopidas, which contributed nearly $715,000 to the ballot initiative campaign between May and July.

It’s owned by Travis Brown, who previously served as the lead consultant to the city’s working group that considered leasing Lambert over the course of nearly two years. His other company, Grow Missouri, spent about $15 million on that project.

A big win for activists

Josie Grillas, an activist with STL Not For Sale, said withdrawing the ballot initiative is huge for her organization and labor groups that have voiced opposition to leasing.

“What it tells us is what STL Not For Sale has been saying all along — that this is really a project that is only pushed by a few special interests, that it doesn’t serve the needs of St. Louisans and there is not grassroots interest,” she said.

In recent weeks, her opposition coalition has grown substantial union support, including from the Greater St. Louis Labor Council, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, SIEU Local 1, Unite Here Local 74, American Federation of Teachers Local 420, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the American Postal Workers Union St. Louis Gateway District and Communications Workers of America Locals 6300 and 6355.

While Grillas said she’s pleased with this outcome, she cautioned it would be shortsighted to think the fight is over.

“There is still money to be made, and I don't discount people’s motivation in trying to access that money that belongs to the people of St. Louis,” she said. “I would say, in general, any claim airport privatization is good for our city or good for addressing the problems with poverty our city faces are really disingenuous.”

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

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