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Lambert privatization under study

Travelers await their flight at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

Photo by Cristina Fletes, cfletes@post-dispatch.com

St. Louis is carefully exploring a public-private partnership to enhance service at St. Louis Lambert International Airport. Whatever the city decides, despite misleading claims to the contrary, it will absolutely continue to own Lambert.

Federal law passed under the Clinton administration, as the Congressional Research Service put it, was “to increase access to sources of private capital for airport development and to make airports more efficient, competitive, and financially viable.” This allows funds to be used for off-airport purposes at city discretion.

St. Louis ran a competitive process to identify advisers with wide and deep expertise. All advisers, including our firm, must follow the city’s governance, committee and review processes.

McKenna and Associates, a firm I founded 15 years ago, was hired as a project manager and assisting adviser on finance and airline negotiations. We lead and coordinate 18 expert teams comprised of top-tier global firms and over 50 diverse individuals. Airport privatization is complex. It involves the financial, engineering and environmental concerns of airlines, large operators, investment funds and, most importantly, the community. Our job is to deliver unbiased information to the mayor, the Board of Aldermen and the comptroller so they can make the best decision for St. Louis.

Three out of four passengers in Europe land at a privatized airport. London’s Heathrow, the world’s seventh-largest airport, is operated entirely by a private operator. Beijing International, the second-largest, and Tokyo Haneda, the fifth-largest, use a public-private mix. If it chooses, St. Louis will be in the vanguard as the largest airport to privatize operations in the continental United States. This would provide a windfall to the city to use as it sees fit, such as paying off its $500 million airport debt. Why not consider it?

The U.S. lags in airport privatization because few cities have the cash, personnel or expertise to run the process. St. Louis has a civic-minded philanthropist, Rex Sinquefield, helping foot the bill, only asking to be repaid by the proceeds if the city chooses a deal. Local philanthropic support has helped maximize the city’s other projects — why not this one?

Unfortunately, some don’t want to consider this option. They oppose public-private partnership at the airport yet offer no solutions to help the city pay off debt or improve finances.

One skeptic of the current effort is Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger. It’s his right, of course. But rather than weigh the merits of privatization, he prefers personal attacks. Messenger has written about a consultant’s divorce, uses inflammatory language and, in a radio interview, characterized my firm’s involvement as “horribly offensive.”

Messenger questioned my expertise, attempting to portray me as an obscure fundraiser. Raising money is a valuable service. We have helped organizations such as historic Ford’s Theatre, Lynchburg University, Spirit of America, Chance for Life, Youth for Tomorrow, the United States Air Force Association and, yes, even the National Rifle Association. However, our firm’s primary work is leveraging its range of expertise (banking, regulation, community engagement, etc.) to solve complex challenges involving public and private interests by managing a bipartisan, inclusive process. We also invest our own capital when engagements allow, so we put real skin in the game.

We assisted on the Pennsylvania Turnpike privatization effort, which would have brought in over $16 billion to that state. We were part of a team working on the privatization of Chicago’s Midway Airport. Last year, we aided a successful merger with a combined market capitalization of $163 billion. We’re currently co-leading a $1.5 billion aerospace and defense transaction as an adviser and investor. Leading investment funds rely on us for pragmatic solutions such as financing 5G ultra-wideband cellular service for America.

We don’t base our judgments on political affiliation — ever. If we did, we wouldn’t last long.

Mr. Messenger tries hard to make us look hyperpartisan, anti-labor and expensive. The truth is we are non-partisan and work with a diverse coalition in St. Louis. The Federal Aviation Administration provides strong guarantees of worker rights at U.S. airports, regardless of whether the operator is public or private. Regarding expense: McKenna and Associates prevailed in a competitive bidding process. We report to the city, which would pay none of our fees unless officials approve a deal that, first and foremost, benefits St. Louis and its residents.

To best serve this community, we believe it’s imperative that all of us to stick to the facts, avoid dogma, rise above personal attacks and keep an open mind as the process plays out.

Andrew McKenna is president and chief executive of McKenna and Associates.