ST. LOUIS — Mayor Lyda Krewson on Friday abruptly ended the city’s exploration of privatizing operations at St. Louis Lambert International Airport, citing criticism from residents, business leaders and other elected officials.
“They have expressed serious concerns and trepidation about the process, and about the possibility that a private entity might operate the airport,” Krewson said in a letter to members of a city committee weighing privatization.
Krewson’s surprise decision followed almost three years of controversy over the possibility of farming out all operations of the airport, which is owned by the city, to private managers. Proponents said such a deal could pay the city hundreds of millions of dollars. Opponents said the city was selling out to private interests, and doing it behind closed doors.
Friday’s announcement brought quick accolades and criticism. Comptroller Darlene Green, a long-standing opponent of privatization, said the airport is well managed and the mayor did the right thing.
“I’m encouraged that the city can now move forward,” Green said in a statement.
Alderman Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward, called the decision “a huge win for transparency and good government.” Spencer and others have blasted the effort for carrying out most of its substantive discussions over the last year and a half behind closed doors.
Others had hoped that the selection of a private operator would provide a windfall that the city could use to help St. Louis’ poorer neighborhoods and their residents.
“It’s a setback,” said Adolphus Pruitt, president of the city chapter of the NAACP. “The people hurt the most by this are the people who really needed the benefits from this transaction — the folks who occupy what we call north St. Louis.”
The privatization study was begun by former Mayor Francis Slay near the end of his tenure in 2017 and continued by Krewson.
In mid-2018, the city formed the Airport Advisory Working Group, charged with studying the pros and cons and deciding if the city should seek privatization bids.
The group is made up of the designees of Green, Krewson and Aldermanic President Lewis Reed, plus city budget director Paul Payne and three non-voting members.
For months, Krewson said privatization approval would be needed only from the city’s Board of Estimate and Apportionment — made up of Green, Krewson and Reed — plus the Board of Aldermen, Lambert’s airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration.
Krewson, under pressure from critics, said in September that she wouldn’t oppose a citywide election on the issue if scheduled by aldermen after a final lease deal was reached.
One lightning rod was the involvement of Grow Missouri, a nonprofit funded by political megadonor Rex Sinquefield.
Sinquefield paid for the city’s application to the federal government to be allowed to consider privatization and is paying millions of dollars in fees to the consultants advising the working group. Grow Missouri was promised reimbursement from revenue from a lease deal, but only if one was reached.
The tab so far has exceeded $11 million, according to the consultants.
Last month, 18 companies and teams of firms turned in applications to be allowed to submit bids to run Lambert.
On Tuesday, the working group delayed an expected vote to narrow the number of eligible bidders.
Records obtained by the Post-Dispatch indicated there had been a disagreement about the qualifications of one of the groups in contention, STL Aviation Group, which included several prominent St. Louis businesses.
On Friday, the mayor made her announcement to end the effort in an interview on St. Louis on the Air, a program on radio station KWMU (90.7 FM). She said her decision was final and that restarting the effort “is not in my plan at all.”
She said she instructed Deputy Mayor Linda Martinez, who represents Krewson on the working group, not to vote for issuing a request for proposals for privatizing operations. With Comptroller Green already an opponent, Krewson’s move effectively blocked the issuance of the RFP.
Reed could not be reached for comment on Friday.
The announcement came the day after St. Louis County officially jumped into the airport fray.
On a 4-3 vote on Thursday, the St. Louis County Port Authority authorized issuing a request for proposals from firms to produce a study on whether privatizing Lambert is in the best interests of the region.
Ernie Trakas, the County Council’s presiding officer, said on Friday the timing of Krewson’s announcement was “certainly interesting.”
He said the county port authority should continue to study a regional approach to operating the airport “because it’s probably the greatest regional asset.”
Krewson, who had previously expressed irritation at the possible county study, said in the KWMU interview that “we’re open to hearing all information if their study turns up something.”
However, she also pointed out that the city has owned Lambert, which is in north St. Louis County, for 99 years and that “we have nurtured it” and “put the debt on our balance sheet.”
Krewson said the city’s consideration of privatizing Lambert had turned up a lot of information about Lambert and its future needs.
She said in her letter to the working group that “the business community and airlines” at Lambert are committed to find another way to make major investments to improve the airport and expand international flights and in the process help attract new business to the region. But she offered no specifics.
Krewson and Slay on Friday both expressed appreciation to Sinquefield for funding the study, saying the city couldn’t afford to do so on its own. Slay had asked Sinquefield to pay for the study.
“He did the city a big favor,” Slay said.
Slay, who was hired as a lobbyist for one potential bidder that decided against submitting a proposal, also said Friday that the process got more politicized — and more expensive — than he expected.
Slay said he understands and respects Krewson’s decision and that “this is her call.”
“She is in the best position to make that determination,” Slay said.