'Aerotropolis' expert says St. Louis will never be one

'Aerotropolis' expert says St. Louis will never be one

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When the guy who wrote the book "Aerotropolis" wanted to talk about St. Louis' economic development plan of the same name, I figured it would be worth listening.

It was. Greg Lindsay — author and journalist and two-time "Jeopardy" champion — says flatly that St. Louis' plan won't work. Even with a proposed $360 million in tax credits, he says, we can't generate enough cargo traffic to justify a major, long-lasting commitment from any airline, Chinese or otherwise.

The tax-credit plan has other naysayers. The free-market Show Me Institute published a critical study, and an air cargo consultant said St. Louis would never be a cargo hub. Backers have tended to cast them as narrow thinkers who just don't get the Aerotropolis concept.

That argument definitely doesn't fit Lindsay — who coined the term in the first place. He wrote "Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next" with John Kasarda, a professor at the University of North Carolina. Since the St. Louis folks co-opted his title, they ought to be interested in Lindsay's opinion.

Lindsay hadn't spoken publicly about the St. Louis effort until last week, when he criticized it on Twitter. He tweeted that "calling some cargo flights and warehouses an aerotropolis doesn't make it one" and then, more bluntly, "I don't think it will work."

Over the phone, he told me why: The middle part of the country has plenty of cargo capacity elsewhere, and other cities are way ahead in the Aerotropolis game.

St. Louis' best- and worst-case scenarios are probably the same, Lindsay said. Here's how he thinks it might go: "Chinese carriers will come until the subsidies run out, then they look again at their balance sheets and pull out. It's really hard to build that critical mass with Chicago and Dallas so close."

What does it take to build an Aerotropolis? "You have to create a market where the cost is lower or the access to market is better, and neither of those is really the case in St. Louis," Lindsay said.

Local leaders are making their pitch on the cost side. Our airport has plenty of unused capacity, and the tax credits would make it cheap for freight forwarders and warehouse operators to set up shop. Why won't that work?

"I think they could lure the Chinese, but the history of airlines and subsidies indicates that they can leave the moment the subsidies run out," Lindsay said.

The message of "Aerotropolis," the book, is that a few global cities now revolve around their airports, rather than the other way around. With rare exceptions, however, they were global cities before they became Aerotropolises. Chicago and Singapore have long been important trading hubs; St. Louis, not so much.

(The exceptions are places like Dubai, which leveraged its own airline, Emirates Air, a favorable national tax regime and a massive amount of petrodollars to become a Middle Eastern air hub. In all likelihood, the Missouri Legislature won't give St. Louis similar resources.)

Lindsay says St. Louis is wise to think about its place in the global economy, but unwise to throw so much money at an unworkable scheme. His book mentions another local white elephant, MidAmerica Airport, as an example of how large sums can be wasted when demand for air service doesn't exist.

St. Louis political and business leaders seem convinced that they've found a real opportunity, and that Chinese airlines have genuine interest in flying here. If they'd continued to simply call it a China hub, perhaps no one would have cared about Greg Lindsay's opinion. But they didn't, and now the Aerotropolis guru says their plan won't fly.

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