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As for Conway and his town, the fix may be in. There's talk of the city's disincorporation or possible annexation into Ferguson or Berkeley.
"Someone recognized this land had more value as a commercial property than a thriving black community," says Felicia Pulliam-Jones, Kinloch's economic-development coordinator. "So they found a convenient way to try and force us out. The airport decimated our tax base over 20 years and then walked away. In essence, they blighted our community. We feel like the lamb in the lion's den. We are a tasty morsel the city, county and developers want to just gobble up."
Since its beginning in 1982, the airport land buyout -- which has eroded about 85 percent of Kinloch's property-tax base -- has prompted allegations that it was propelled more by greed than by concern about airport noise. Kinloch and St. Louis have waged an ongoing war over the land. The last battle began when Kinloch sued the city last year, alleging that St. Louis reneged on its long-standing commitment to convey the 175 acres back to Kinloch. The suit also accused St. Louis and the airport of misrepresenting the reasons for the buyout to the Federal Aviation Administration (which paid about $50 million for the buyout and related costs), saying the real reason for the buyout was to force the disincorporation of Kinloch so the airport could profit by selling the land to developers.
Airport officials note that the buyout was voluntary and that residents were eager to leave the towns. Moreover, Griggs asserts, the plan to sell the land back to the buyout municipalities has never changed. "Any accusation that we kept this land for a protracted period of time for our own use is absolute nonsense," he says. The airport had to hold the land until the $2.6 billion airport expansion plan received final approval from the FAA, which happened last January, says Griggs. Now, the cities need to submit a development plan that the airport can send to the FAA before the land can be conveyed back to the cities.
Dennis Coleman, director of the St. Louis County Economic Council, says that once the airport-expansion plans, including the runway configurations, were finalized in early 2000, the airport asked the county for help coordinating a development plan. "We started meeting regularly with the cities of Kinloch, Ferguson and Berkeley so we could set up the best way to develop a master plan," says Coleman. The overall development could create thousands of jobs and millions in tax revenue for the economically depressed part of North County.
Says County Executive George "Buzz" Westfall: "It is the best thing for North County, certainly in my 11 years [as county executive]. The development and revenue will improve the quality of life for all residents, and if not stopping [it] altogether, it will most certainly slow down the exodus of people from North County."
By the spring of 2000, all three municipalities were on board with the county in coordinating a plan. The airport chipped in $100,000 to finance a master plan by Jones Lang LaSalle Inc., a consulting firm from Chicago that coordinated a similar redevelopment near Chicago O'Hare International Airport. The master plan is expected to be completed in December. "The idea was to have Kinloch, Berkeley and Ferguson become one development site," Coleman says. "We want it developed as a whole, instead of piecemeal."
For Kinloch, the clock was ticking. With a new census documenting the rapid population decline, Conway and other city officials began worrying about an estimated 55 percent reduction in sales-tax revenue, which accounts for most of the city's current annual budget.
In October 2000, Kinloch selected Trammell Crow Co. as developer. Berkeley quickly followed suit last November. By January, Ferguson had also selected Trammell Crow.
Coleman says he asked the communities to be patient and wait for the master plan before naming a developer but that they didn't. "I think some of the developers gave them the idea that they could get the deal done, but I don't know how, since they haven't secured the land," he says.
But Conway believed that the airport and county were simply stalling the planning process. "For a year-and-a-half we sat down with the major players and had quite a few meetings," he says. "I told the county, 'We can't drag this along.' The one thing they knew where they had the advantage was time. They started dragging out the process. They would bring in one person and say, 'He is going to help with a 90-day study.' Then they brought in somebody else for another study. I started saying, 'Wait a minute! Time out! When are you going to give us a plan? When are you going to stop talking and do something I can see?' So we got our own plan together."
Pulliam-Jones believes all the delays were deliberate and that St. Louis, St. Louis County and the airport were simply hoping that Kinloch's revenues would dry up and the city would be forced to disincorporate. "We were the community with the fewest resources, and we were taking the lead," she says. "We were at every meeting. We ended up waiting and waiting and waiting, and the whole time the people who were supposed to be helping us were whispering in dark corners, planning for us not to be around."
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