The St. Louis County Port Authority is ending a failed effort to lure a flight to continental Europe that had tied up some $5 million of its funds.
The program, which had not previously been reported, was approved in closed session in December 2017 under former Port Authority director Sheila Sweeney. Sweeney was installed by former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, and both pleaded guilty in May to federal corruption-related charges.
No money was spent from the program, nor is it clear whether an airline was in serious discussions with the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership to establish flights from St. Louis Lambert International Airport to continental Europe.
The new Port Authority Board “felt this was totally outside the scope of what the Port’s resources were supposed to be used for,” said Denny Coleman, who was hired out of retirement as the Port Authority’s interim director as part of the St. Louis County Council’s maneuvers to wrest the powerful agency from Stenger’s control.
The Port receives about $5 million a year in rent payments from the River City Casino in Lemay, money that it uses for economic and community development projects. Historically, the Port has awarded many of its resources as grants to nonprofits and community development corporations. The board’s move Thursday frees up a significant chunk of money for future projects, and Coleman said the Port Authority hopes to issue a request for grant proposals within the next couple of months.
In other cities that have offered similar airline subsidies, “the airline service only lasted as long as the incentive,” said Coleman, who led the county’s economic development offices for 25 years before Stenger was elected.
“As soon as the incentive went away, the direct flights went away,” he said. “So it didn’t seem like it was sustainable.”
The Port Authority in 2017 had already committed up to $1.5 million for international flights, and it ended up committing up to $600,000 for Wow Air flights to Iceland. Those incentives were never paid, and the budget airline ended up discontinuing those flights after only a few months.
The Port Authority had also committed about $3 million for a potential Chinese freight hub at Lambert during Coleman’s tenure. But Coleman said Missouri asked for that commitment and provided community development money for projects in Lemay to offset the Port Authority’s capital commitment. In any case, the air cargo project never materialized, and those funds weren’t spent either.