The East-West Gateway Council of Governments is considering a study about regional governance of St. Louis Lambert International Airport.
During a board meeting Wednesday, elected officials from St. Louis and counties across the region discussed the idea but did not vote on it.
Conversations among regional leaders about the airport’s future have been growing since St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson pulled the plug on airport privatization in December.
Jim Wild, executive director of the council, said it was time to have discussions about regional governance in the open with the people who actually own and operate the property.
St. Louis has owned Lambert for nearly 100 years. Mayor Lyda Krewson expressed concern Wednesday that the purpose of a study could be to find a way for counties to take over a valuable city asset.
“It’s an asset that everyone seems to want to get a piece of,” she said. “Now, I’d like to see you all get a piece of the homeless situation.”
She said she needs to see the scope of the study before getting on board.
President of the Board of Aldermen Lewis Reed echoed that sentiment, saying a deal would have to be about more than just improving the airport.
“St. Louis County — are you willing to reinvest in the city? I think we need to start there,” he said.
Reed said St. Louis County already benefits from sales taxes on surrounding airport services like restaurants and car rentals. But, he added, the liability of the airport’s debt — which totals nearly $600 million — rests solely on St. Louis.
“Let’s take a look at how some of that additional revenue that [St. Louis County is] receiving on an annual basis can make it back to the city of St. Louis, so we can address some of these major infrastructure issues and socioeconomic issues that have been brought to the city of St. Louis by an unfair system,” he said.
During the meeting, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page addressed Krewson and Reed: “I hope you don’t hear me arguing with you. Nobody is talking about taking something; we’re talking about participating.”
After the meeting, Page said he hopes a study would explore everyone’s questions, including whether it’s a good idea to change the airport’s current structure.
“What would it take for the primary stakeholder — the city of St. Louis — to consider changing that relationship? I do think that we need to have a serious conversation about how we can make our airport better,” he said.
The St. Louis County Port Authority earlier this month rescinded a request for proposals regarding a similar study, noting East-West Gateway was better suited to pursue a more inclusive study.
St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann, vice chair of the group, has been a vocal proponent of looking at regional governance.
He said the value of a study is less about making everyone agree and more about making sure they’re all working with the same facts.
Ehlmann said Airport Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge would like to be involved in the conversation moving forward but wasn’t able to make the meeting Wednesday because of a scheduling conflict.
The group will revisit the topic at its next meeting on Feb. 26.
In the meantime, Wild will sharpen the scope of a potential study and consider what resources would be necessary.
Krewson noted that the private funding for the city to study privatization drew public criticism and was “one of the biggest impediments to getting to the final stages.”
Wild said the study could be done in-house or in collaboration with regional bodies like the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership.
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