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Idea of leasing Lambert is back as two plans could ask voters to decide privatization

The Mayor said in 2019 the idea was dead after it lost the support of business and civic leaders. But, now voters could decide privatization

ST. LOUIS — Sometimes, the bigger the idea, the longer the runway it needs to become reality. But, in St. Louis right now there are two billion dollar plans for Lambert trying to get off the ground quickly. And there is already turbulence.

"I can't believe this," quipped Alderwoman Cara Spencer (D) Ward 20, as she debated fellow members of the Ways and Means committee Thursday.

The committee was debating a bill by Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed that would ask voters if the city should turn over control of St. Louis Lambert International Airport to a private contractor in a possible 50-year $1.7 billion lease. 

Reed wants the bill passed quickly so it can be on the November ballot where another petition-driven initiative is likely to ask voters the same question: should St. Louis privatize its airport?

"You need to get this on the ballot, otherwise there's going to be one choice," Reed told the committee. 

Election officials said signature gatherers already have more than enough signatures to put the issue on the November ballot. 

Reed said in his version of the plan, money from any airport lease will be dedicated to "safety and quality of life" programs like job training and neighborhood redevelopment. 

In the petitioners' plan Reed said all the money from an airport lease would go into the general fund with no strings attached. 

But strings in this process and who might be pulling them are what has opponents of both plans worried.

Every public comment in Thursday's committee meeting was against the privatization. That included the city's comptroller, Darlene Green, who said she's concerned the board is doing the bidding of private investors.

"Honorable board members do not be fooled by the fact that you're president, the board is bringing this because then you will have turned over this precious asset to special interests," Green told the committee in their Zoom meeting.

But, despite public opposition, the plan advanced out of committee with only one 'no' vote from alderwoman Spencer.

One of the multiple concerns Spencer expressed is based on another city that tried privatization and had to buy back its airport from investors when it went bankrupt.

"How much did it cost local taxpayers to regain control of that asset?" Spencer asked in the meeting before telling them it was tens of millions of dollars. 

Reed countered that the upstate New York city Spencer referenced likely still profited from the deal. 

"This is not a game," Reed argued. He said he is neither for nor against privatization at this point but wants to make sure if voters have the chance to approve the process that the board has control over how proceeds would be spent.

"Infrastructure problems, families losing a house...homelessness, all of these issues that I hear people talking about every day. But when we have an opportunity to address them head on, it becomes a very different conversation," he said.

After Reed's bill advanced to the full board a group organized to stop privatization - STL Not For Sale - released a statement saying, in part, of plans to lease the airport, "It wasn’t a good idea six months ago and it isn’t a good idea now. STL Not for Sale will continue to work with elected officials and educate residents about how this scheme has been rigged from the start.”

In 2019, Mayor Lyda Krewson halted the process of considering privatization and terminated a contract the city had with a consultant. At the time she said business and civic leaders were no longer on board. 

RELATED: Mayor Krewson halts Lambert airport privatization

But that terminated contract is still hanging over the current process. Reed's office said the contract had a clause that said if the city decides to move forward with the privatization of Lambert within 18 months of termination the city would still owe the company its fees - which on a $1.7 billion lease would amount to around $45 million. 

Reed's office said the clause is not uncommon in consulting contracts but opponents alleged the money is motivating decisions about the airport.

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