Updated Nov. 4 with letter and complete list of signatures.
Mayors of municipalities surrounding St. Louis Lambert International Airport sent a letter Monday to St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson asking for a briefing about airport privatization. The letter is signed by the mayors of the following cities: Woodson Terrace, Berkeley, Hazelwood, Edmundson, St. Ann, Overland, St. John, Bridgeton and Breckenridge Hills.
(Scroll down to read the letter.)
Original story from Oct. 23:
On a cool October morning, Woodson Terrace Mayor Lawrence Besmer stands on a construction site eyeing the progress of a new hotel going up off Interstate 70, across from St. Louis Lambert International Airport.
But Besmer worries that the success of this hotel and another planned for his city of 4,000 residents hinges on what ultimately happens across the street — where officials are discussing whether to lease the airport to a private operator.
“It would just be nice to know what’s going on,” he said. “We can’t plan without knowing what they’re doing. So, it’s hard.”
Hotels and car rentals serving airport passengers make up a considerable chunk of the city’s economy. While the airport plays a crucial role in the well-being of Woodson Terrace and many other municipalities in the county, Lambert belongs to the city of St. Louis — and Besmer doesn’t get a say in what happens to it.
For more than a year, the St. Louis Airport Advisory Working Group has been exploring the idea of privatizing Lambert. Earlier this month, the effort gained momentum when the group put out a call for interested companies to submit their qualifications.
One big opportunity the group sees out of a private deal is the potential to redevelop 1,200 acres of land around the airport. If that happens, though, Besmer worries that car rental companies will leave for closer access to customers, and existing hotels will be met with fierce competition.
“I worry for these guys, you know. I don't want these hotels to go belly up,” Besmer said. “I mean, we want them to be very successful, and we’re trying to look out for their interests.”
That’s why this week Besmer is sending an open letter to St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson. It asks for greater transparency in the privatization process, as well as a sit-down meeting to brief mayors in the area.
The mayors of Edmundson, St. John and Berkeley have also signed the letter, and Besmer hopes more will join.
But Krewson said there’s not much yet to discuss with communities around the airport.
“Well, there’s no deal now — first of all — so how would we inform them about how this nonexistent deal would affect their community?” Krewson said.
“But yes, when there is a proposal — if we decide to move forward with a proposal — then I think, absolutely, we ought to talk to everybody.”
Krewson doesn’t see much downside for communities around the airport. “If we get a better airport, they will have more business as well,” she said.
But without many details about what a private deal would entail, mayors in the region aren’t so sure.
‘Now what are they going to do to Bridgeton?’
Many residents in Bridgeton are still upset about the last time the airport made a major change.
Decades ago, more than one-third of the city’s residents were bought out to make room for a $1 billion runway to fuel TWA’s growth. But ever since the airline folded, that runway has been underused.
Now, with privatization on the table, Bridgeton Mayor Terry Briggs said his residents have a lot of questions.
“There’s a lot of fear as to, ‘What is the airport doing now? Now what are they going to do to the city of Bridgeton?’” he said.
“And it’s up to us as elected officials here in this city to say, ‘Unless you can start answering these questions, we’re not going to be so positive on privatization.' But are we going to have a voice? It’s not our property.”
Briggs said he’d like to be able to reassure residents they won’t be affected this time around, but the truth is he doesn’t know. He said officials in St. Louis haven’t approached him about privatization, and he’s frustrated that much of the discussion about it has taken place behind closed doors.
Briggs is also the financial chairman of the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis, which includes leaders from regional municipalities. He said the group recently discussed a preliminary plan to study the impact airport privatization could have on their communities.
But without county representation on the Airport Advisory Working Group, which is spearheading the privatization process, Briggs said he’s not privy to many details.
He said development of the land around the airport could be good for the area if it brings new jobs. Plus, it could allow Bridgeton to make use of the 400-acre buffer of land it still owns near the airport.
But with so many unknowns, Briggs said he’s not ready to rally behind a private operator.
Waiting on proposals
Paul Payne, head of the working group and St. Louis budget director, said it will still be several months until the city has proposals detailing exactly what operators have in mind for the airport and the land around it.
“The fact that you don’t know, there’s a tendency to fill that vacuum with whatever fears and things may be,” he said. “I’m going to hold judgment until we get to a point where we actually have something to evaluate.”
Payne said one of the things the working group will look for in proposals is a plan for economic development in the region. All interested bidders must submit their qualifications by Nov. 1.
Once they’ve been reviewed, Payne expects the group to ask a short list of companies to come back with detailed proposals.
As St. Louis moves forward with privatization, St. Louis and St. Charles county executives are backing a study to explore a different future for Lambert — regional governance.
The St. Louis County Port Authority is expected to release a request for proposals for a contractor to conduct a study as soon as next month.
Denny Coleman, interim director of the St. Louis County Port Authority, said there’s been a lack of discussion about alternatives to privatization that include regional input.
“The privatization study seems to be moving forward with a great deal of momentum fueled by financial support, and before that becomes a fait accompli, I think it’s worth the regional consideration to have other models discussed,” he said.
Coleman said there needs to be a greater conversation about how the airport could best serve everyone who uses it — not just those in St. Louis.
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