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China Hub initiative takes more international focus

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 4, 2012 - With a new name, a new chairman and a new source of money, the re-christened Midwest Hub Commission is proceeding with its effort to reframe and reinvigorate the effort to transform Lambert-St. Louis International Airport into an international cargo hub.

Dan Mehan, chief executive of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, is the new chairman of the commission. His selection isn’t surprising, given the aim of involving more state officials and business leaders in what started out as a regional effort.

“This is a lifeline for the team working to jumpstart the cargo routes at Lambert Airport,” Mehan said in a statement. “Speaking in my role as head of the Missouri Chamber, I can tell you businesses across this state need the cargo hub project to succeed.”

Enlisting a state presence is seen as the best way to get the Missouri General Assembly behind the project. Two earlier attempts failed to persuade legislators to approve tax breaks for encouraging developers and shippers to use Lambert.

The commission’s old title had been the Midwest China Hub Commission. The new name drops China largely because that reference is seen as stoking resistance among legislators, many of whom hear from local businesses about perceived trade threats from China.

“This is a new life for a project that is vital to the success of our region and the state as a whole,” said Denny Coleman, president and CEO of St. Louis County Economic Council, the organization responsible for facilitating the acquisition of the $3 million to bankroll the new effort.

The money is coming from a state-approved $3 million Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) for Lemay. The St. Louis County Port Authority, state officials say, will use the grant “to support air freight incentives at Lambert from its casino lease revenue.”

Lambert Airport Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge supports the changes, taking note that the goals remain the same: “Lambert needs cargo, and the state of Missouri needs Lambert,” Hamm-Niebruegge said.

“These funds put the muscle into our argument that St. Louis is the right place to move cargo around the world.  We have capacity, and we are happily uncongested, unlike most other United States cargo hubs, such as Chicago and New York.”

“We continue to fight to remake the airport.  Lambert needs cargo to grow our regional economy,” said Tim Nowak, executive director of World Trade Center St. Louis.

“We have a new mission and some fresh ideas for this project,” concluded Mehan.  “I’m excited. I appreciate the support of the Missouri Department of Economic Development, St. Louis County Economic Council, St. Louis County Port Authority and our other partners who made this happen.”  

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.