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Backers of regional control of St. Louis airport dealt a setback

Backers of regional control of St. Louis airport dealt a setback

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St. Louis Lambert International Airport

St. Louis Lambert International Airport's Terminal 1.

Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS — A move toward possible regional governance of St. Louis Lambert International Airport was dealt a setback Wednesday after St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and Aldermanic President Lewis Reed voiced strong criticism.

Members of the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, an influential metrowide planning board, voted 15-7 to table a proposed study of the city-owned airport. It was unclear after the vote whether the matter would be revived later.

The council chairman, St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann, said he hoped it would be.

Krewson, during a lengthy discussion, didn’t oppose the study idea outright but said Ehlmann and other supporters wanted to move much too quickly by pushing for a go-ahead vote on Wednesday.

Before deciding what to look at, the mayor said, East-West Gateway should have its staff review previously compiled research including what was collected during the city’s recent consideration of leasing Lambert to private operators. She said she didn’t know how long such a review would take.

Moreover, Krewson complained that the proposed study only would deal with Lambert and should also include other local airports such as MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah and Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield.

“You’re just looking at how to take something that’s owned by the city and figure out how other people can govern that,” Krewson said. “I don’t think that’s appropriate.”

Reed called for an end to exploring the idea, complaining that there was no indication what a study would cost “and where we plan to land” with it.

He also repeated his attack from Tuesday on former Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr.’s behind-the-scenes efforts last fall promoting regional governance. Reed alleged Schoemehl’s push led East-West Gateway to the study.

Reed again criticized a recently disclosed email sent Oct. 27 by Schoemehl to Ehlmann, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page and a Page aide that counseled the three to engage black aldermen on the issue with “a few private dinners, some orchestrated ego stroking, etc.”

“As an African American, when we see this kind of language, what that says is forget about giving us the facts, the details,” Reed said. He said black aldermen are already organizing to oppose an East-West Gateway study and any plan to turn Lambert over to a regional body.

Ehlmann said he didn’t believe Schoemehl’s comments were racially motivated but understood why Reed could view them as insensitive.

At one point in Wednesday’s meeting, Ehlmann asked Reed whether there’s a chance Reed would at some point consider an East-West Gateway study with a narrower scope. Reed said, “I am not one to ever have … a closed mind.”

Among those joining Krewson and Reed in voting to table the study idea were Page and St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern. Both cited the lack of support from St. Louis officials.

Page said “this is a consensus-driven organization” and that he doesn’t think East-West Gateway should embark on ventures that don’t have consensus.

However, he said St. Louis County intends “somehow” to be part of discussions about Lambert’s future because the airport “affects us tremendously” and its relationship with North County municipalities “is not working.”

“I don’t accept that St. Louis County doesn’t have a role to play in that conversation,” Page said.

Kern pointed out that St. Louis hadn’t asked East-West Gateway to study Lambert and that “I would hate to see dollars being spent for something that’s just going to sit on the shelf and that isn’t being embraced by the whole board.”

Kern also said he doesn’t believe MidAmerica, which is owned by St. Clair County, could be turned over to a regionwide airport authority because of the joint-use agreement it has with Scott Air Force Base and the federal government.

Kern added that the St. Louis Airport Commission, which helps oversee Lambert, already includes some members from St. Louis, St. Clair and St. Charles counties in addition to city appointees.

Ehlmann and East-West Gateway executive director Jim Wild emphasized that approval by St. Louis would be required for any plan. “Participation and buy-in by the city is critical,” Wild said.

Among those joining Ehlmann in opposing tabling the issue were Madison County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler, Franklin County Presiding Commissioner Tim Brinker and Ferguson Mayor James Knowles.

Brinker said the study would be for the betterment of the St. Louis region and not aimed at taking away any money St. Louis receives from Lambert.

Knowles said this is an opportunity for North County residents to have more input on how Lambert operates. “I would hate for us not to do something” on the issue, he said.

East-West Gateway’s staff last week had proposed studying 10 subject areas. But on Wednesday, Wild told the council that he had deleted some of them after being told by the city that “the business community” is willing to help fund an expanded city study of Lambert’s physical infrastructure needs.

Krewson said a $5.5 million study by WSP, a New York-based engineering firm, “is about to kick off” but said nothing about any business funding.

After the meeting, Krewson’s deputy mayor for development, Linda Martinez, declined to comment.

Later, Krewson’s spokesman, Jacob Long, said business leaders are “open and willing to commit resources” in efforts to improve Lambert and its role as an economic driver for the region. But he said the city is not at the point where any specifics can be announced.

The East-West Gateway board, in addition to including the top elected officials from St. Louis and metro counties in Missouri and Illinois, includes representatives of municipal organizations and appointees of elected officials.

Updated at 6:30 p.m.

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