Airport Privatization Has St. Louis Surveying an Unexplored Frontier. Who's in the Pilot's Seat?

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click to enlarge When Francis Slay came asking, Rex Sinquefield agreed to fund the city's application to the FAA's pilot program. - COURTESY OF FIRST RULE
When Francis Slay came asking, Rex Sinquefield agreed to fund the city's application to the FAA's pilot program.

The meeting, arranged at Slay's behest, took place in the Kingside Diner in late 2016. At the time, Slay was eyeing the end of his political career. Sinquefield was one of Slay's largest campaign donors, and the retired investor's fortune had backed the 2012 initiative that gave the city control over its police department, something Slay had long desired.

Still, in a Democratic city, Slay concedes, "Rex can be controversial." The free-market enthusiast has tried unsuccessfully to eliminate the state income tax, and his dogged attempts to kill St. Louis' earnings tax put him and Slay on opposite sides of a critical matter.

"He has very strong feelings on issues that I'm diametrically opposed to," Slay acknowledges. "But if he and I can work on things for the benefit of the people of St. Louis, then I'm going to do it." And when it came to the FAA's pilot program, "I was hoping that he would look at this as a civic gesture that would benefit the region."

The meeting also included Travis Brown, CEO of the PR shop Pelopidas and Sinquefield's longtime lobbyist. To his audience of two, Slay laid out the case for privatizing the airport.

Basically — in the best possible world — a competent private operator could take over Lambert, infusing the airport with cash for infrastructure improvements and money the city could use for desperately needed projects. Under federal law, a commercial airport's revenue is locked in a circuit, redirecting its revenue back to the airport (although St. Louis has been grandfathered in under a small exemption that sees the airport kick $6.5 million into the general fund annually). Privatization could mean a much bigger windfall.

Philosophically on board for anything that shrinks government, Sinquefield "didn't need a lot of convincing" to commit resources to backing the city's application, says Slay.

Aware of the whispers surrounding Sinquefield, Slay insists there's no conspiracy at play — he says the retired financier expressed no designs on profiting from the venture. Still, during that meeting, he admits that Sinquefield suggested that a St. Louis flush with new revenue could start thinking about repealing that pesky earnings tax.

"I'm not saying he didn't bring it up," Slay says. "There was absolutely no commitment on that at all. What I presented to Rex had nothing to do with the earnings tax."

After the meeting, Sinquefield was in.

With only a few weeks left in office, Slay made multiple research trips to Washington D.C., along with Brown. On March 16, one week before submitting the preliminary application to the FAA, Slay and then-City Counselor Michael Garvin signed a "memorandum of representation" with the three parties who would guide the city through the FAA's byzantine requirements: McKenna and Associates, a Beltway consultant firm; the Wicks Group, a private equity company that would prepare the actual application; and a Sinquefield-backed lobbying entity, Grow Missouri.

The agreement was signed on the condition that any costs for the application would be handled by Grow Missouri and McKenna , but it included a crucial caveat: The money would only be reimbursed if privatization went through. Beyond the mayor's office, other city and airport officials were in the dark.

Slay says he understands the frustration with the secrecy, but he bristles at the suggestion that the process was somehow tainted. He was the mayor, after all.

"I was elected to make decisions on behalf of the people of St. Louis," he says. "What should I have done? You have a vote of the Board of Aldermen and decide whether or not you file the application? I don't know what that means."

He acknowledges that the lack of transparency has its trade-offs. In recent months, city lawmakers have mounted a serious pushback, pointing to Slay's deal with Sinquefield and a contract that appears to incentivize consultants to push a deal through, come hell or unfavorable terms for taxpayers.

The former mayor is worried critics are missing the bigger picture. There's not even a deal to debate yet.

"I understood going in that this wasn't going to be a simple smooth process," he says. "But ultimately as mayor you have to be an opportunist, you have to be able to take advantage of those opportunities when they exist."

He set the table. Now he's hoping Krewson can guide the city toward a good plan.

"If it's not good for the airport and the future of the region, it shouldn't happen," Slay argues. "But," he continues, stabbing his finger into the table with each word, "we won't know unless we know what that deal is."

Mayor Lyda Krewson has continued Slay's efforts to evaluate the airport's future. She's also continued his strategy of opaque decision-making. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
Mayor Lyda Krewson has continued Slay's efforts to evaluate the airport's future. She's also continued his strategy of opaque decision-making.

We still don't know what the deal is. But the 82-page application Slay submitted to the FAA last year provides a compelling summary of what the city hopes it could accomplish.

The Request for Qualifications, or RFQ, lays out the city's objectives. Simply put, St. Louis has put too much money into the airport. And it needs cash.

Servicing the airport's debt, which at one time totaled $1 billion, currently eats up around 43 percent of Lambert's annual budget. At its current rate of repayment, the city says, the airport won't pay off its remaining $600 million of debt (plus $300 million in interest) until 2048.

Airport officials tout recent credit rating upgrades from Moody's, Fitch and S&P Global Ratings — which each upgraded Lambert from "stable" to "positive" — as reason for optimism. But any deal to lease the airport would do more than just get a good rate for the debt service; it would wipe out the debt entirely. Under federal law, privatization deal cannot go forward while an airport has debt on its books.

And that could benefit not just the airport, but the city — officials anticipate that a privatized airport would send an annual remittance much bigger than the $6.5 million it currently gets. In fact, it foresees a windfall — payments "four to ten times larger than the city transfers expected today," according to the RFQ.

"If a private operator was selected and an upfront payment structure was chosen, the City would expect to free up more than one billion in capital for non-Airport uses," the RFQ claims.

A billion dollars is nearly twice the sum paid up front to Puerto Rico. And by virtue of being part of the U.S. but also located in the Caribbean, that airport clearly has more strategic potential for airlines.

But Travis Brown says the point isn't just the dollar amount. He believes a private operator could increase flights.

"Let's face it," says Brown, "we have a lot of debt, and it was built for a larger operation that has never materialized. We basically built an airport for 2,000 airport operations a day, and we're not typically seeing 300."

Sinquefield hasn't released any statements about his motivations. The billionaire generally shuns contact with the press, which leaves Brown fielding questions about the man Politico called "King Rex."

"Rex is not a king," Brown says. Sinquefield has no plans to make money off airport operations, he insists, "now or in the future."

Rather, Brown argues, Sinquefield "should be considered the patron saint of St. Louis."

"He's retired," Brown says several times. "He doesn't have any commercial interest in any airport. That presents him as a philanthropist of the region, who is uniquely poised to be able to carry a lot of professional assistance."

click to enlarge With critics lambasting privatization plans, Sinquefield lobbyist Travis Brown cautions, "Anyone who tells you they know what the outcome is dead wrong." - COURTESY OF FIRST RULE
With critics lambasting privatization plans, Sinquefield lobbyist Travis Brown cautions, "Anyone who tells you they know what the outcome is dead wrong."

Ultimately, Brown estimates that Grow Missouri will have to hire "several dozen professionals" and put in "thousands of hours" of labor. And only if the airport goes private does Grow Missouri get reimbursement. Before that happens, Grow Missouri and its partners aim to conduct a full assessment of the airport, including a financial audit and a wider study of the strategies a private entity could use to take advantage of its potential.

"This process can take two or three years to get right," he says. "That's why it's cumbersome for most cities; that's why you don't see a lot of cities doing an application to get an initial slot. That's why we were pleased that St. Louis is in pole position with this new infrastructure movement in Washington."

Whether such an infrastructure movement actually materializes, only Trump knows (and he probably doesn't). But it's worth noting that, despite Brown's estimate of a two to three year process, the city's FAA application suggested a more ambitious timeline.

In fact, under Slay's outline, the city should have already signed its contract with a consultant, released a request for proposals, negotiated with bidders, placed a charter amendment on the ballot, and agreed to a final lease with a private operator. Ostensibly, the deal would be signed and closed by May.

Literally none of those benchmarks has been hit. And if you ask some city lawmakers, the delay is a good thing. They want nothing to do with King Rex.

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