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Airport Privatization Not Dead After All: Ballot Initiative Aims To Revive The Issue

St. Louis Lambert International Airport. August 2018
File photo / Carolina Hidalgo / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis halted a yearslong process exploring a potential lease of the airport in December, but some groups want to let voters decide in November whether it's still a good idea.

The St. Louis NAACP and the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council announced plans Wednesday to force a public vote on whether the city can lease St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

The groups must gather more than 22,000 signatures to get the issue on the Nov. 3 ballot. It would take more than 60% of the vote to pass the proposal. And if it passes, the city would amend its charter with a plan for leasing the airport.

The ballot initiative comes six months after city officials abruptly called off a yearslong processexploring a potential long-term lease of the airport. The city’s proposal attracted some of the world’s largest airport investors and earned the support of the groups behind this new initiative.

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson in December said the plan didn’t have enough support from the public and businesses. 

Adolphus Pruitt, president of the local NAACP, has criticized the mayor’s decision to halt the process. Pruitt said he’s been working with the union since January to keep the effort going. He said that airport investors are still interested in the opportunity and that the money could be a game-changer for the city.

“It addresses all of the root issues that impact the city of St. Louis, and the citizens in St. Louis should have the option of seeing something like this come to fruition,” he said.

Pruitt said what’s different about this initiative is that people will get a chance to vote, and they’ll know where the money is going. The proposal suggests how to allocate the proceeds of a deal — at least $300 million for police, fire and safe neighborhoods, as well as $200 million each for neighborhood development and job training programs. An additional $100 million each would be earmarked for infrastructure projects like streets and bridges, as well as the removal of vacant buildings and transportation infrastructure. 

The proposal also sets parameters on any potential lease. Bids must be higher than $1.7 billion, with at least $1 billion cash up front, and investors must first pay off the airport’s roughly $600 million in debt. Investors would also be required to retain existing airport workers, including union members, at their current compensation. Proceeds would be placed in trust funds that would require the city to use the money over the course of six years.

Al Bond, executive secretary-treasurer of the carpenters union, said leasing the airport and developing the roughly 1,000 acres of vacant land around it could provide a lot of jobs — including for workers affected by the coronavirus pandemic. 

“People are going to lose jobs, and we need to get people back to work,” he said. “And if this comes to fruition, it's going to be a real lifesaver.”

Bond said the campaign to gather signatures will be “expensive.” The union has so far spent $5,000, but it will need to raise thousands more from businesses and other organizations, he added. 

When asked whether he would accept money from Rex Sinquefield — who funded the city’s last attempt at airport privatization — Bond said he would welcome it.

“I don’t know what the hang-up is with Rex Sinquefield. People may not agree with him, but I think what’s good for St. Louis is good for him and good for the community,” he said, adding that he has not spoken with him about the initiative. 

Bond said he and Pruitt did speak with Krewson on Wednesday morning about their ballot proposal. Jacob Long, a spokesman from her office, said in an email that Krewson hasn’t had time to review it, and added, "She's not interested at this time in reviving the process in which she stopped last December."

Krewson is under fire to withdraw an application with the Federal Aviation Administration that allows the city to lease the public asset to a private company. She has previously said she intends to withdraw it eventually, but first wants to be sure there isn’t a reason to keep it alive.

St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green, who asked the mayor to withdraw the application last week, has been a longtime critic of airport privatization.

In a statement about the revived effort, she said leasing the airport is a plan set up for special interest groups to take advantage of a public asset. 

“As long as there is an FAA application out there in limbo, it sends a mixed signal about city government’s support for the airport and it leaves a door open for special interests to try again,” she said. 


Follow Corinne on Twitter:@corinnesusan

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