Updated at 2:30 p.m. with reaction from members of the working group.
A nearly two-year process to consider leasing St. Louis Lambert International Airport to a private operator is coming to a screeching halt.
St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson said Friday she’s sending a letter to members of the Airport Advisory Working Group saying that she's asking her representative, Linda Martinez, to not support or vote to move forward with issuing a request for proposals.
The mayor said she listened to members of the public, business leaders and other political leaders.
“In that listening, what I observe, there’s really very little support for moving forward with a private operator of our airport,” Krewson told St. Louis on the Air host Sarah Fenske.
Voting members of the working group include: Martinez, Gerard Hollins (Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed’s appointee), LaTaunia Kenner (Comptroller Darlene Green’s appointee) and City Budget Director Paul Payne. Green has been a vocal opponent of the process.
In a statement, Comptroller Green said the mayor did the right thing by stopping the process.
"From the very beginning, I opposed airport privatization," she said. "Our airport is well-managed, and I thank all our airport employees for their hard work and dedication. I'm encouraged that the city can now move forward."
Krewson has previously been in favor of exploring the process to see if it could result in a good deal for the city — canceling nearly $600 million in airport debt and bringing in up to $2 billion in net proceeds.
On Friday, Krewson said the working group had reached a fork in the road, and she wasn’t prepared to move forward with privatization.
“We would have been the first, the first in the U.S. When you’re the first at something, there’s a lot of risk, there’s a lot of trepidation and a lot of concern. And I just think there’s too much of that to move forward with this.”
Documents containing the minutes of a closed-door meeting, leaked to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Tuesday, reveal potential conflicts of interest related to one company — STL Aviation Group.
According to the minutes, Martinez pushed back on why the company was not included on a shortlist of eight companies recommended by consultants to the group. STL Aviation Group is being advised by former Mayor Francis Slay aide Jeff Rainford.
Slay kicked off the privatization process at the end of his term as mayor in 2017 by submitting an application to the Federal Aviation Administration.
On Friday, Mayor Krewson said she had no concerns about Martinez’s comments during the working group meetings.
“Linda Martinez has worked in this community for 40 years … she has impeccable standards and an impeccable reputation. I think that was exactly the conversation that should have happened.”
Krewson’s move also comes after the St. Louis County Port Authority voted Thursday evening to move forward with its own study on the regional impact of airport privatization.
Regional leaders including St. Louis County Executive Sam Page and St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann have called for regional ownership and development of Lambert.
Local billionaire Rex Sinquefield has been footing the bill for the privatization process since it started. His organization, Grow Missouri, leads the group of more than a dozen consultants reporting to the working group. The total cost since August 2018 adds up to more than $11 million, according to quarterly payment certificates.
According to the city’s contract with Grow Missouri, Sinquefield will only be reimbursed if the city goes through with privatization.
Krewson said on Friday the money would not be reimbursed.
“I do have to say that for all the criticism of this, there was no one else who stepped up and offered to pay these funds,” she said. “And, personally, I appreciate the investment that’s been made in our airport and, really, the people to help us get there.”
The mayor said the dozens of consultants Grow Missouri hired highlighted opportunities that the airport could seize, including developing 1,200 acres of unused land around its terminals.
She said the working group also learned the airport needs about $900 million in capital improvements over the next decade, has too many gates and too few flights, and not enough cargo.
Krewson said they’ll likely take a break until after the New Year, then will return focus on improving the city’s biggest asset.
“People lamented the airport, but nobody was really engaged to do it. Now I think everybody’s really engaged to do it,” she said.
Head of the working group Paul Payne, who was informed of the mayor’s decision earlier Friday, said the group hasn’t yet worked out when it will meet next and how it will unwind.
With the process coming to an end, he said he was “a little disappointed” that he won't be able to see what companies had in mind for Lambert.
“These were proposals from companies throughout the world who were focusing on St. Louis,” he said. “There’s a lot of new technology and airport design ideas out there, and it would have been interesting to hear some of them.”
But through collecting information about the airport during this process, Payne said the groundwork has been laid for other plans to improve it.
In a statement, Lambert director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge said the airport’s mission remains the same.
“Through the process, we’ve been open to hearing feedback from our citizens and business leaders about the Airport’s operations,” she said. “Furthermore, we’re excited to hear the growing support for this Airport to become an even bigger asset for all of our users and the St. Louis region.”
Read: Mayor Krewson's letter to the Airport Working Group
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