Proponents of airport privatization are back with a new message — and it’s about helping north St. Louis.
St. Louis Rising, a joint organization involving the St. Louis City NAACP and the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council, is working to collect 20,000 signatures to put the question of privatization before voters in November.
Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis City NAACP, said leasing St. Louis Lambert International Airport could bring in at least $1.7 billion, and he has a plan to earmark at least $1 billion of that money to address decades of underdevelopment in predominantly black neighborhoods.
This week, Aldermanic President Lewis Reed filed a bill that would put a similar question on the ballot if members of the board approve it. Either ballot measure would need more than 60% approval at the polls to create a charter amendment laying out the requirements for leasing Lambert to a private operator.
The renewed efforts come about six months after St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson killed the controversial city-backed process that garnered interest from nearly 20 airport investors.
Pruitt said he believes leasing the airport is the only way to come up with the money to address long-standing issues like blighted properties, poverty and crime.
“The underlying conditions in north St. Louis and the people who live there and in the city, period, are so pronounced and so astronomical as it relates to cost to remediate, that unless you are able to go in there and attack it viciously with a lot of resources, you're not going to resolve it,” he said.
But others argue the new privatization efforts are spreading false hope to struggling residents.
Both lay out the process for how the city would pick a private operator and divvy up the proceeds of an up to 49-year lease of the airport. They also require the operator to pay off the airport’s roughly $600 million debt.
In addition, they call for the creation of trusts to hold at least $1 billion of the proceeds. The city would be required to spend about half of the total in each trust within the first three years.
Pruitt and Reed are supportive of each other's plans but say they are not working together.
Reed anticipates his bill will look much different after other aldermen and the public weigh in. He said the city needs the money now more than ever because of the economic impact of the coronavirus.
“We have to make some bold decisions to get us to the next level to address these issues head on. And if a lease gets us there? Amen to that,” he said.
When asked for Krewson's reaction to these proposals, spokesman Jacob Long said in an email the mayor is focused on maintaining as many flights as possible at the airport, which has been heavily impacted by the pandemic.
“Mayor Krewson killed the previous process and pulled the FAA application. Should the voters of the city of St. Louis decide they want to lease the operations of the airport, we'll figure out what those next steps look like,” he added.
‘Sell it as snake oil’
St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green has been a longtime critic of airport privatization. The key issue is that the same billionaire is funding these efforts, she said.
St. Louis billionaire Rex Sinquefield has so far funneled more than $300,000 into the petition drive through his media advocacy organization Pelopidas. He sunk more than $11 million into the last effort, which would have been refunded to him had the city landed on a deal.
“This is not about helping black people,” Green said in an interview. “This is about allowing special interests who support Rex to gain from the assets of the airport — a place where they can take money, strip it down.”
In a statement Thursday, she said Reed's bill is “supporting special interests and not the public.”
Green said it’s her job to protect taxpayers' dollars and the city’s assets — the airport being the most valuable one. She fears leasing the airport could be a step toward bankrupting St. Louis.
She said the privatization effort is giving vulnerable people — including those who have lost jobs and loved ones during the pandemic — a false sense of hope.
“I think it does a disservice that the president of the NAACP, who is supposedly about social justice, will enter into a financial scheme and try to put it in a bottle and sell it as snake oil to the very people he's supposed to be protecting and representing,” she said.
‘As transparent as it can get’
Pruitt pushes back, saying that he’s laid out everything he plans to do in writing and that he’s never hidden who he works with and where the money comes from.
“It's as transparent as it can get,” he said.
Pruitt said the petition addresses many concerns people had about the last privatization effort, including a public vote and more transparency about who is involved.
When the city-led effort fell apart, Pruitt said he approached Travis Brown. He runs several Sinquefield-associated companies — including Pelopidas — and is the former lead consultant of the city’s airport privatization working group.
“We came back with a proposition that says, ‘Listen, if you're sincere about what's best for the city, here is a proposition that is good for the city. Invest in it like you would anything else,’” he said. Brown did not return a call for comment on his role in the new effort.
Pruitt said Pelopidas will continue to fund St. Louis Rising’s efforts. The company has also contributed in-kind studio time and production of campaign videos on the NAACP’s website. It has also funded attorney fees; Pruitt hired longtime Sinquefield lawyer Marc Ellinger, who is also a former member of the city’s working group.
St. Louis Rising is also paying Metropolitan Strategies and Solutions to assist with signature-gathering and educational promotion of the petition. Lejuan Strickland, owner of the company, previously provided communications work to the city’s working group.
Pruitt said the organization has not hired any additional consultants.
A ‘tempting’ deal
Leasing the airport is tempting, especially for people who’ve been waiting on resources for decades, Sarah Coffin said.
But the associate professor and program director of an urban planning and development program at St. Louis University is skeptical that a go-big-or-go-home investment is the answer to the city’s deeply rooted issues.
“The north side has been struggling to gain foothold since the white flight started back in the '50s. And even pre-desegregation, the disinvestment was more insidious in some ways,” she said. “I question whether one big giant pot of money is going to solve the problem.”
Coffin acknowledges that incremental development can be frustrating for residents in need of resources now. But she said it has more staying power, and it allows residents to have more of a say in the way their neighborhoods change.
Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, D-22nd Ward, still has a lot of questions about whether leasing the airport would be good for his north side constituents.
“What scares me is when you think about the city of Chicago when they outsourced parking. Yes, the city got a billion dollars or whatever it was, and they were able to do whatever they did with it. But at the end of the day, the parking fees went up astronomically,” he said.
Boyd said it looks good on paper to bring in millions of dollars to rebuild north St. Louis. But he wonders what the city, and residents, will give up in return.
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