For two and a half years, the city of St. Louis has been exploring the idea of leasing St. Louis Lambert International Airport. An army of consultants has been toiling — largely behind closed doors — to put together a request for qualifications. They hope to attract a private company willing to pay big money up front in hopes of profiting off future airport operations. While other cities have flirted with the idea, the leasing of a major U.S. airport is unprecedented.
On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, two high-ranking city officials joined the program to discuss the state of the privatization conversation: Paul Payne, the city budget director and chairman of the airport working group, and Linda Martinez, deputy mayor for development.
They outlined three objectives that have compelled the city to look into privatization: improvement of the airport, the opportunity for further development within the region, and the possible provision of funds to the city, “which we would expect to be a substantial sum and a compelling amount in order to make this all worthwhile,” Payne added.
Martinez explained that the process involves first drawing up a request for qualifications (RFQ), which entails screening of potential bidders to gauge whether they can financially and operationally move forward in the process. Only if some firms are deemed qualified would the city submit a request for actual proposals.
“We've done this in a two-step process to make sure ... we have qualified respondent teams that can handle both the financial and the operational activities,” Martinez said.
When it comes to the timing of the request for qualifications, Martinez said that will be announced on the city’s website. “At this point in time, we won’t make a statement about the timing,” she added.
Addressing conflict-of-interest concerns
Among the concerns of those opposed to privatization is the matter of who’s steering the process – FLY314, a subsidiary of Grow Missouri Inc. The consultant group is back by billionaire financier Rex Sinquefield. He’ll only be repaid if the airport is leased, which had some callers raising the specter of a conflict of interest.
“We have an opportunity here with a venture philanthropist helping us explore something that we didn't have the financial wherewithal to explore,” Martinez said. “The city of Chicago had $17 million sitting around in order to hire somebody to see if this was something that was financially viable and thoughtful for them to do. [In St. Louis], somebody is underwriting this opportunity to explore [airport privatization] – doesn't mean we're going to do it.”
Payne reiterated that “the way the system is set up now is … the cost are being borne by Grow Missouri. … And if there is a transaction, then proceeds from the transaction will be netted out against those costs for both the improvements of the airport, as well as to the city's benefit to whatever the amount that may be.”
Another fear, expressed by callers to the show, is that privatization could lead to companies cutting the costs of important services such as airport security in order to maximize their profits.
Martinez responded by stating she doesn’t see that issue as a concern since any future operator would still have to abide by standards set by federal authorities.
When asked what led to the firing of Douglass Petty, the former communications manager of the St. Louis Airport Advisory Working Group, both Martinez and Payne declined to comment, saying it was a personnel matter. St. Louis Public Radio previously reported that Petty “likely” placed a call to St. Louis on the Air using a fake name.
Listen to the full conversation:
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Alexis Moore. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.