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Economy & Business

MidAmerica Airport Is Long On Critics, But Officials See Turnaround As Boeing Expands

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) recalls a time when many people questioned whether MidAmerica St. Louis Airport should be built at all while speaking at a news conference on Sept. 17 in Mascoutah.
Derik Holtmann
/
Belleville News-Democrat
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, recalls a time when many people questioned whether MidAmerica St. Louis Airport should be built at all while speaking at a news conference on Sept. 17 in Mascoutah.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

MASCOUTAH — Former and current politicians had a laugh Friday over early skepticism of MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah.

They were gathered for a news conference, where The Boeing Co. announced plans to build its second multimillion dollar production facility on airport property, this one to make MQ-25 Stingray aircraft-refueling drones for the U.S. Navy.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, recalled a time when many people questioned whether MidAmerica should be built at all. The airport was even called the “Gateway to Nowhere” on an NBC News segment “The Fleecing of America.”

“There were a lot of critics, weren’t there John?” he asked former St. Clair County Board Chairman John Baricevic. “People said, ‘It’s worthless. It’ll never complete with Lambert airfield. It won’t create jobs. It’ll be an eyesore. It’s just a drain on the treasury and on the taxpayers of this region.’

“Take a look at it now. Ranked the fifth-busiest airport in the state of Illinois. It has become the center for development of sophisticated jobs and opportunities on this side of the river, the likes of which we’ve rarely seen in our history.

“So, John, thanks for hanging in there, buddy, all those years ago. The critics were wrong, and you were right.”

Durbin also praised former U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello for calling him a little more than 10 years ago and saying, “I think we can get Boeing on our side of the river,” prompting Durbin to do what he could to help.

“Jerry, you worked more miracles to bring more jobs and economic development to this area than anybody I’ve ever seen in Washington,” Durbin said.

A photo from the MidAmerica groundbreaking ceremony in 1992 shows Baricevic and Costello attending that event.

St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern described Costello and former U.S. Sen. Alan Dixon, now deceased, as the visionaries who worked hard to get MidAmerica built as a way to support the mission of Scott Air Force Base.

Kern also pointed to the longtime support of Illinois Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, and former Illinois Sen. James Clayborne.

‘Gateway to nowhere’

MidAmerica was known as the “Gateway to Nowhere” shortly after it opened in March 1998.

Two months before the airport opened, it received national attention in January 1998 from the NBC Nightly News feature called “The Fleecing of America” since it had a $313 million price tag and didn’t have any airlines scheduled to operate there.

NBC News also covered the airport’s financial plight in 2000, 2010 and 2015. The 2010 report still is on YouTube and the 2015 report on the NBC News website. Both of those clips feature reporters walking through the deserted terminal.

In the last two NBC reports, Kern, who became St. Clair County Board chairman in 2004, defended the airport’s development.

CBS News also covered the airport’s finances in 2015 and posted a headline calling it the “ghost airport.” Former Airport Director Tim Cantwell defended the airport’s operations at the time and said, “Wait a little longer and there will be more people in here.”

In recent years, the number of passengers at the airport has increased, according to the airport’s website.

In 2015, the airport had 63,000 passengers but it had over 300,000 passengers each in 2018 and 2019. There was a dropoff in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic to about 216,000 passengers.

Soon after the airport opened, four airlines unsuccessfully tried to operate out of MidAmerica but they all ceased operations. Pan American Airways, Great Plains Airlines, TransMeridian Airlines and Allegiant Air all gave MidAmerica a shot.

One of those airlines, Allegiant, returned to the airport in 2012 and has maintained a presence ever since. It now has flights to 12 destinations.

MidAmerica also is now expanding the terminal that once was empty. The $30 million project will nearly double the terminal space and is expected to be finished in 2023.Teri Maddox and Mike Koziatek are reporters with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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