Feeding Frenzy

Two developers, three cities, the airport and the county are engaged in a dogfight over 438 acres of prime North County land. And there's plenty of sleaze to go around.

Keith Conway's first lesson in backdoor politics came three days into his administration as mayor of Kinloch, when he got an uninvited visitor. Conway, a young R&B singer with no political background or experience, ran a write-in campaign, promising to save his cash-starved hometown, which had been decimated by a 20-year airport land buyout. The city's population, almost entirely African-American, had shrunk from 6,000 in 1970 to less than 450. On April 11, 1999, Conway beat the incumbent, Bernard Turner getting 127 votes to Turner's 50. When he took office, Conway discovered that Turner had left him with the office furniture and not much else -- no files, no memos, no records, nothing. "There wasn't anything as much as a scrap of paper left," Conway recalls. "Everything was gone." Conway found himself sitting at an empty desk, surrounded by buckets filled with rainwater from a leaking roof.

And then Luther Boykins marched in. He didn't have an appointment. Nor did he bother with introductions.

"He told me I didn't know what the hell I was doing," Conway says. "Instead of introducing himself, he says, 'I don't know how you got in, but you ain't supposed to be here. We have something on the table. We are too close. You need to get Turner back in here to finish the deal.'" Conway wasn't fazed: "I told him, 'Fuck you, marching in here telling me what I don't know. Who the hell do you think you are?'" Boykins told him he needed to think about the deal. Conway kicked him out: "I told him, 'There ain't nothing to think about except that door.'"

The "deal" Boykins referred to was the tax-subsidized development of 175 acres of Kinloch land. The acreage, mostly residential property, had been bought by the airport for noise mitigation and was to revert back to Kinloch. Boykins, a consultant for Clayco Construction Co. and a former member of the Lambert-St. Louis Airport Commission, had been working with Tri-Star Business Communities, courting Turner. Conway's election had thrown a monkey wrench into those plans.

In retrospect, says Conway, the meeting made him vigilant. "Boykins put me on my toes," he says. "It was a rude awakening to the kind of people I was going to be dealing with. Yeah, Luther woke me up real quick."

Boykins acknowledges the meeting but refuses to talk about what was discussed with Conway -- or about his own ties to Turner. TriStar senior vice president Larry Chapman says his company had plans in the works with Turner but that "when Turner didn't get elected, those all unraveled."

About three weeks after kicking Boykins out of his office, Conway met with St. Louis airport director Col. Leonard L. Griggs Jr. to discuss the transfer of the 175 acres to Kinloch. The land was now considered prime commercial and industrial real estate, ripe for major development, similar to Earth City or Westport Plaza. Conway, still trying to bend his mind around the intricacies of economic development, was certain of one thing -- Kinloch's future depended on getting the vacant property developed. Conway went to Griggs hoping to hash out a settlement. Griggs had other things on his mind. "After the meeting, he pulled me aside and told me I was going to be getting a call from Luther Boykins," Conway says. "I didn't tell him I had already met Mr. Boykins and kicked him out of my office. In the first three meetings I had with Col. Griggs, he mentioned Boykins twice."

Griggs admits that he and Boykins are good friends but says the comment was innocent: "We told Conway all along, 'You may get a phone call, but whatever deal you get or whatever redevelopment program you come up with has to be approved by you.'"

Conway has his own theory. "They [Griggs and Boykins] had something going on," he says. "I know they did."

Conway's mistrust however, extends way beyond his dealings with Boykins and Griggs. The stakes were high for the development, which stretched across 438 acres -- 175 in Kinloch, 233 in neighboring Berkeley and 30 in Ferguson. The accident of geography, with the airport nearby and the intersection of Interstates 70 and 170 in close proximity, made the acreage the hottest commercial site in North County. Conway's subsequent meetings with competing developers and their consultants -- as well as with officials from Berkeley, Ferguson, St. Louis (which owns the airport) and St. Louis County -- confirmed his suspicions: Everyone wanted to develop the land, but no one cared about Kinloch's survival.

A little town with an inexperienced administration and a $600,000 annual budget (that will soon shrink to $250,000 because of the 2000 census count), Kinloch finds itself a bit out of its league, mired in what may be a $400 million development game. And Conway finds himself not trusting any of the players. "There are a lot of people way up who want to get their hands on this land," he says. "I don't trust none of these people. I've seen too many of them with dollar signs in their eyes."

The land rush is on, and it's begun to take a toll: It has created havoc in Berkeley politics, including with recall elections; led to a dogfight between TriStar and Trammell Crow Co., a competing developer; and resulted in dozens of secret meetings between shady consultants and small-time politicians. And there is no deal in sight yet.

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