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Business leaders met with Page and Ehlmann, urged Krewson to consider alternatives to airport privatization

Business leaders met with Page and Ehlmann, urged Krewson to consider alternatives to airport privatization

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St. Louis Lambert International Airport

Passengers walk past a information board in Terminal 2, Thursday, May 17, 2018, at St. Louis Lambert International Airport in St. Louis. Photo by Nikos Frazier, nfrazier@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS — In the weeks before Mayor Lyda Krewson abruptly ended an effort to lease the city’s airport to a private operator, several local business leaders mounted a quiet lobbying effort to slow the process.

Records obtained by the Post-Dispatch show the business leaders held a series of separate meetings that involved Krewson, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page and St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann.

On Nov. 19, leaders of two of the region’s most prominent business groups — Civic Progress President Tom Santel and Regional Business Council CEO Kathy Osborn — met with Page and Ehlmann in Clayton to discuss the fate of St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

Also at that meeting was Jason Hall, the chief executive of a group called Arch to Park and a critic on social media of the Lambert privatization process.

On Dec. 5, Krewson met with Santel, Osborn, Civic Progress Chairman Warner Baxter and Regional Business Council Chairman Greg Twardowski regarding Lambert privatization, her spokesman, Jacob Long, said.

“This was one meeting over the course of two-plus years this process was underway,” Long said, adding that “everybody’s input was important” to Krewson’s decision.

Hall, who was not at the Dec. 5 meeting, appears on Krewson’s calendar for a Dec. 18 appointment — just two hours before Krewson had a call scheduled with Baxter.

Baxter, who is chairman and CEO of Ameren Corp., also had a call scheduled with Krewson the next day, Dec. 19.

The meetings, listed on official calendars obtained by the Post-Dispatch through public records requests, shed more light on who was trying to influence the privatization effort in the weeks before Krewson’s surprise announcement.

Though the Post-Dispatch reported last month that Civic Progress and the Regional Business Council had expressed concerns to Krewson, the meeting with Page as well as the involvement of Hall and Arch to Park was not previously known.

Hall has described Arch to Park as a “civic-minded” private investment entity focused on strengthening the city’s central corridor. Hall and his organization also appear to be closely aligned with Andy Taylor, executive chairman of rental car giant Enterprise Holdings.

Arch to Park LLC’s organizer is Jason Thein, who has been an estate planning attorney and partner at Thompson Coburn. Thein is the registered agent for nonprofit St. Louis Citizen of the Year Inc., which lists Taylor as president. Thein is also listed as the agent for Soldiers Memorial LLC, which was identified as the donation vehicle for the $30 million renovation of Soldiers Memorial downtown. It later was revealed that Taylor and his family had funded much of the project.

Thein also represented the ownership group of the new Major League Soccer franchise, led by the Taylor family, according to Thompson Coburn.

Clayton-based Enterprise Holdings owns the Enterprise, National and Alamo car rental businesses. A consultant’s report obtained by the Post-Dispatch on potential revenue-boosting ideas at Lambert outlined big possible changes to the rental car business there, including consolidating all seven rental car companies operating there into a new facility attached to Terminal 1.

It’s unclear how much Enterprise officials knew about the proposal, which wasn’t detailed publicly until the Post-Dispatch reported on it last week, and they declined to comment on it. In response to questions about whether Hall was representing him or whether he had concerns about changes to the rental car business at Lambert, Taylor released a general statement:

“My focus has always been on advocating for the long-term success of the St. Louis region. I look forward to working with Mayor Krewson and other leaders to make sure Lambert Airport can continue to be a strong asset for our hometown’s future.”

Hall said he was at the meeting with Page as chief executive of Arch to Park and that he doesn’t represent any particular CEO, adding that airport privatization was an issue of economic development, a topic he regularly discusses with “business leaders, public officials and many others.” Hall previously served as deputy director and, briefly, director, of the Missouri Department of Economic Development under former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon.

“I personally thought the privatization process was convoluted, not transparent and frankly not popular with any of the leaders or groups with whom I had spoken, and I relayed those concerns,” Hall said in a written response to questions. “Process and trust-building matters on a public decision of this magnitude, as it often does in any major civic initiative.”

County’s involvement

The privatization process, launched in the last days of former Mayor Francis Slay’s administration, was pitched as a way to attract private capital to improve the airport and generate upfront payments worth hundreds of millions of dollars that the city could use to shore up its budget and invest in the urban core.

Critics complained it was entirely funded by libertarian megadonor Rex Sinquefield, who stood to be reimbursed for the millions spent on consultants if a deal went through. Others complained too many of the deliberations were behind closed doors; a lawsuit sought to nullify any actions taken in improperly closed meetings.

Ehlmann said the meeting in Page’s office dealt mostly with a study proposed by St. Louis County Port Authority Director Denny Coleman and board chair John Maupin examining, among other topics, regional governance of Lambert. The Port Authority was scheduled to vote on issuing a request for proposals two days later, on Nov. 21. Page sent a letter supporting the study, but the board ended up tabling the RFP on a 4-3 vote.

On Dec. 19, a day before Krewson ended the privatization process, the Port Authority voted 4-3 to approve issuing the RFP.

Ehlmann, who told the Post-Dispatch this week he is open to exploring the potential purchase of Lambert using special sales tax districts in order to put it under regional control, said he wasn’t sure what organization Hall was representing at the meeting with Page. “I don’t know which hat he had on that day.”

Page’s spokesman Doug Moore said the county executive “listened to many community members about their perspectives on Lambert airport’s future.”

“Those community members included business leaders and other regional leaders with opinions on all sides,” Moore said in a statement.

Business community dissent

Indeed, not all members of Civic Progress were opposed to leasing Lambert. In an Oct. 26 email obtained by the Post-Dispatch that was sent to Santel, Baxter and Osborn, David Steward, the chairman and founder of World Wide Technology, urged them to support the process.

“We have the attention of the global aviation community who view the U.S. as the emerging market for development of airports,” Steward wrote. “Let us seize the moment and leap ahead of other cities to whom we’ve been losing ground for decades.”

Steward, who is a member of Civic Progress, disclosed in the email that Maryland Heights-based World Wide Technology was part of STL Aviation Group, which was one of the bidders for a Lambert lease. STL Aviation wasn’t among eight groups recommended by the city’s lead consultant, Moelis & Company, according to minutes of closed-door meetings of the Airport Advisory Working Group.

The Post-Dispatch reported last month that Krewson’s aide on the airport group examining bidders, Linda Martinez, urged that the group that included Steward’s company be allowed to bid because “excluding them would send a negative message to the community since they are familiar with the St. Louis area.”

Santel and Osborn, in a joint statement responding to questions about their meetings with Page and Krewson, acknowledged they expressed concerns to city officials.

“We, however, shared that we had not taken a position on the merits of privatization as a potential vehicle to develop a world class airport,” they said in the statement. “Our recommendation was that additional strategic alternatives be evaluated, alongside airport privatization, before any long-term decision or awards were made. We had offered to fund such a study.”

In response to follow-up questions about whether they were representing their entire membership, a spokesman said that “given the relatively large membership of both organizations, it should not be surprising that a variety of opinions were expressed on the merits of privatization and the overall privatization process; however, the consensus of both organizations is consistent with the (earlier) statement.”

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to clarify that Jason Hall was formerly director of the Missouri Department of Economic Development. A previous version misstated his title.

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