A few desperate individuals are looking under couches and between the seat cushions hunting for money towards rebuilding interest in Aerotropolis. A pot of just $3 million in tax dollars shuffled around in a probably legal but highly confusing manner just to get the Aerotropolis bait funded again. Will this $3 million slip back between the seat cushions as mature trees flourish and the concrete roads that were once Carrollton continue to dissolve back into nature’s reclaim?
According to a confusing series of articles in the Post-Dispatch regarding the (nonexistent) Asian cargo air hub at Lambert, it looks like Aerotropolis proponents will be handed $3 million in yet another effort to lure Asian shipping flights into Lambert. Where did they get the $3 million in pocket change and how exactly will it be used? Perhaps I can explain how they got the money slightly better than the Post did. How it will be used is unclear to everyone, including those who appropriated the funds.
Due to massive Missouri floods in 2008, Missouri received a large sum of grant money from the federal government for redevelopment of affected lands plus general flood relief. The Lemay area was one of the areas affected by flooding and due to receive grant money. Lemay is in St. Louis County.
However, Lemay has already approved a $3 million appropriation of tax funds from the nearby River City Casino for roadway improvements. Casino money does not have the stringent regulations on how that money can be used as federal grant money does. Therefore, the appropriation of funds from the Casino is more flexible than federal funds.
On April 4th, the St. Louis County Council approved a measure to transfer Lemay’s $3 million Casino funds towards a pot designed to lure air cargo for Lambert. As a trade-off, Lemay will receive $3 million from the feds in flood money to reconstruct their roads and infrastructure.
I admit, this is a clever way of finding money, if somewhat strange. It seems to me that Lambert, together with the RCGA had to really spend some time searching every possible route and talking with every entity to find this money. Shifting millions of funds allocated for other intentions through loopholes should be considered controversial. Re- appropriating tax funds happen in government, but given the final purpose of these funds seems all together desperate.
So, how exactly will $3 million that has been indirectly shifted from the River City Casino be used at Lambert?So far, there does not appear to be a precise plan in play, although the Regional Chamber and Growth Association (RCGA) has said they will use the money to spread word of St. Louis’ willingness to attract carriers. At this point, it is unclear exactly who will handle the funds, but it appears that Lambert and the RCGA will be working with St. Louis’ World Trade Center and its own Hub Commission for the purpose of generating cargo interest.
My personal guess is that the money will also be used to lower landing fees at Lambert for air cargo flights, as Lambert has one of the highest landing fees in the U.S. One of the reasons we have such high landing fees in the first place? To finance airport improvements, including the $ billion dollar runway 11-29 of the W-1W expansion plan that opened in 2006.
To put it in other words, our local government is using tax money collected from gamblers to place their own bets on making the air cargo hub a reality.
I have said before that I will fully support the cargo hub if it can be proven to be a viable economic engine and create lasting jobs in our region. Another reason I should be for Aerotropolis: I am a huge fan of the City of Bridgeton. Bridgeton would prosper enormously if there was a major cargo port in operation in their backyard. Last, I honestly do hope that St. Louis had the possibility of erasing the boondoggle of the W-1W runway and pay off its $1.4 billion dollar airport debt with thriving, job producing air cargo.
However, I also believe the words of every major expert on the subject that has come out and said that St. Louis does not have a horse in this race. The experts were speaking out back in the 1990s and warning St. Louis against expanding the airport during the fragile airline travel bubble.
It is clear that, to make up for the mistake of an empty runway, St. Louis City is desperate to attract air cargo. So they, along with the entire state of Missouri, spent thousands of taxpayer money to send ambassadors to China in an effort to create trade agreements. Those exhaustive efforts have only resulted in one Asian carrier that gave us two flights and indefinitely cancelled the rest. We can try and continue to send more delegates and politicians to ask industries in other countries to work with us, but there is only so much begging we can do.
So why do the experts think Aerotropolis won’t get off the ground? Flying cargo is enormously greater per pound than overseas shipping. Geographically, we are competing with cities with established cargo routes in place for decades. About the time we were adding a runway with the intent for passenger travel, many airports were relocating their airports outside their metropolitan areas and have the ability to expand at will. This has given Denver and Dallas-Fort Worth, two airports who relocated at the same time Lambert was expanding, the competitive edge in air cargo. Chicago has had air cargo shipments since the days of prop planes. Finally, Aerotropolis will be competing with businesses already in the St. Louis area. Any cargo we bring in via air will be competing with local transportation methods already in place. Any cargo contained in the warehouses on airport (St. Louis City) property will compete with empty warehouses in St. Louis County. Yes, we may see an increase in trucking exports from St. Louis. However, this will compete with regional transportation methods already in place in the region. So far, we have had no lack of goods on the shelves at Wal-Marts and Targets in the area.
Despite the salivations of developers at lucrative building contracts, we simply cannot afford to build empty buildings and wait. Hundreds of thousands of empty warehouse square footage already exists near the airport within single digit mileage, most of it along highway access. Once we begin to see a demand for existing space, once we see actual cargo flights coming in, and once there is proof that St. Louis is a destination for air cargo, then we can get excited about building Aerotropolis on St. Louis City property next to the airport. Yes, the region needs growth. More importantly, we need responsible growth, not gambles.
I understand our politicians’ and leaders’ desire to lure industry. I can sympathize with why no politician would vote against accepting $3 million dollars for improvement projects designed for attracting potential business. St. Louis City is desperate to create jobs and bring industry back to the city borders. I hate the fact that St. Louis is vacating because of a decline in viable, quality employment.
St. Louis has a place in aviation history. However, the City of St. Louis has to recognize that its prestige in flight has gone from legendary to embarrassing. It is time we recognize that fact and move on from it. It is time that we tell our officials to truly understand what progressive development means. Never once did progress mean to destroy large swaths of history with expensive gambles on a hope of something bigger than reality. Real progress means to preserve, grow slow and deliberately, and diversify industries while celebrating the character that makes St. Louis unique. Remaining true to its history and character while embracing real global frontiers are the qualities that will attract industry and people in the future. The sooner our leaders realize this, the better.
If you want to read the Post-Dispatch series, you can do that here.