CLAYTON — As St. Louis evaluates the 18 private teams that have expressed interest in leasing St. Louis Lambert International Airport, a St. Louis County entity could soon launch its own study to determine whether privatizing Lambert is a good idea for the region.
A draft request for proposals for firms to conduct the study, obtained by the Post-Dispatch, is set to be discussed Thursday by the St. Louis County Port Authority at its regular meeting.
Port Authority leaders called for the study last month, with interim Port Authority Director Denny Coleman — a top economic development official in the region for over 25 years — saying a study independent of the city’s process could provide a “more transparent” look at the privatization question. St. Louis County Executive Sam Page and St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann support the study.
The draft request, known as an RFP for short, says the firm conducting the study should determine “whether privatization of Lambert Airport (partial or complete) is in the best interest of all airport stakeholders.” It also calls for “recommendations for regional governance implementation” and a recommendation for the best governing structure for the airport.
It also says the firm “should ascertain and document the challenges or concerns that precipitated the effort” to begin the privatization process.
In a surprise announcement in the last days of his administration, Mayor Francis Slay launched the process to examine privatizing Lambert in March 2017. The effort has been bankrolled by libertarian megadonor Rex Sinquefield, and one of the city’s main consultants on the effort is Grow Missouri, a nonprofit funded by Sinquefield and led by Travis Brown. The privatization consultants are being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a month, and Sinquefield stands to be reimbursed if a privatization deal goes through. Most of the consultants are in line for “success fee” bonuses if a privatization deal is done.
St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed say the city stands to potentially reap an upfront payment of hundreds of millions of dollars from a long-term lease of the airport, cash that could be used to address infrastructure and other priorities in the region’s urban core. While Lambert would be the first mainland U.S. airport to be run privately, private operators aren’t uncommon in Europe.
Critics complain about the Sinquefield operation’s involvement and a process that mostly shuts the public out, because much of the discussion at the city’s airport working group meetings are in closed meetings.
The working group issued a request for qualifications last month and received 18 responses. The city could pick a private operator by the end of next year.
The Port Authority’s draft RFP calls for the creation of a committee made up of “governmental, institutional, business and transportation stakeholders” that will inform the consultant doing the study. It will also hold public hearings and comment sessions but won’t try to influence the private consultant’s study, according to the document.
Coleman, in an interview, said the process would be “far superior” to the city’s process.
”Our process is going to be very open and we’re going to include input from a lot of stakeholders,” he said.
The St. Louis County Port Authority’s move to conduct its own study irked Krewson, who initially told the St. Louis Business Journal it wasn’t “very neighborly.” Her spokesman later said she was open to learning from a separate study.
Among other objectives, the RFP asks a consultant to examine “the ability of the City to expend funds received through privatization for non-airport related uses.”
The cost of the study isn’t known, though a ceiling will likely be set. Coleman said he anticipates it to be a major study in excess of $10,000.
If the Port Authority approves issuing the RFP, responses from interested firms could be due by January. The RFP says it wants a study produced within 90 days of a contract award.