Cooperation at the Airport Is an Idea for the Ages

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As we roar into the Twenties, it's certainly nice to see people from the city and county showing a patient willingness to work together at St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

Just consider this reporting from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

"The Missouri Aeronautical Society, it was announced today, has leased a 160-acre tract on Natural Bridge, near Bridgeton, St. Louis County, as a landing place for airplanes. The move is preliminary to a plan for establishing passenger airplane service between St. Louis and other cities."

The plan was worked out by three key city residents, brothers W.B. and Frank H. Robertson and Albert Bond Lambert, "a pioneer promoter of aeronautics here," the paper reported.

"The selection of a new landing place was determined after it was decided that the Forest Park landing place, near Forest Park Highlands, selected for the Government for aerial mail, would not do for large passenger planes. The Forest Park site is too small and too closely hemmed in by buildings and wires, aviators say, to be a desirable place for landing with a large plane."

Despite that issue, the process has reflected consideration of the county's needs: "The lease on the Bridgeton tract will be in effect as soon as the new crops on the fields have been harvested. The lease is for six years at $2,000 a year."

Oh wait. My bad. I'm a little behind on my reading and grabbed the wrong copy of the Post-Dispatch. This one's from 1920, not 2020. The article was dated June 18, 1920, two months to the day before the 19th Amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote in America.

So, it's fair to say this whole city-airport-in-the-county thing has been with us for a while. We can't go back in time and change the city fathers' uncontested choice to locate an airfield out in the country. Although it should be noted that had they stayed with the Forest Park site, the Loop Trolley could have taken people to the airport.

Lambert, who had been taught to fly by Orville Wright and had made daring exhibition flights at Fairgrounds Park back in 1911, paid the rent, personally took part in grading the fields and in 1925 put up most of the $68,352 that the then-169-acre site cost from Mrs. Mary J. Weldon.

In 1928, Lambert sold it to the city at his cost, paid out of a $2 million bond issue that city voters had approved — through the philanthropic Lambert's leadership — and voila, we had our city-owned airport smack dab in St. Louis County. What could possibly go wrong?

There were no city-county territorial arguments back then. Consider this ad from May 1934:

"FREE AIR SHOW! Sunday May 6th, 2:30 p.m. Thrills! Races! Stunts! Kroger-Piggly Wiggly air show in co-operation with Lambert St. Louis Airport Association at St. Louis-Lambert Municipal Airport."

Note that word "co-operation." At the time, nearly 300 Kroger and Piggly Wiggly stores were dotted throughout the city, dominating the local grocery store business.

In 1956, city taxpayers invested $7.2 million — along with $500,000 from the federal government — to fund the cost of opening Lambert's original main terminal, which at the time was considered a state-of-the-art landmark nationally. That's also about the time the city and county started giving one another the hairy eyeball.

Consider this, from the 1959 editorial page of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat:

"The first impression which many visitors to St. Louis receive is an excellent one when they arrive at our superb Municipal Airport. The second may be far less pleasant if they use one of the airport taxis. For many years, rivalry between the city and the county has prevented St. Louis taxi cabs from picking up passengers in St. Louis County and county taxis from picking up passengers in the city unless the cabs are licensed by both city and county, as few are."

The editorial concluded: "Isn't it time that common sense prevailed and that reciprocity between city and county, resulting in savings to each, became the order of the day?

So city-county arguments at the airport have been going on at least 60 years, and that's about the same time that unproductive chatter would start and stop between mayors and county executives about Lambert.

Mayor Raymond Tucker and County Executive James H. J. McNary (no relation to later County Executive Gene McNary) were said to have discussed it. Then, according to Post-Dispatch reporting, "in 1976-77, Mayor John H. Poelker and Gene McNary considered having the county buy half the airport and share in its management."

McNary offered $25 million and Poelker was "willing and anxious" to talk, according to the Post-Dispatch, but Mayor Jim Conway, elected in 1977, wasn't selling. In retrospect, that was a pretty smart decision from the city's standpoint, and it might be a cautionary tale from city leaders' point of view going forward.

About a decade later, Mayor Vince Schoemehl and McNary had serious talks about swapping partial ownership of Lambert for partnership in an indoor sports stadium downtown (ahem). Here's how that got reported by the Post-Dispatch:

"Several members of a task force appointed by Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl to determine the value of Lambert Field said they would make sure the city's "priceless commodity would be well-protected.

The Post-Dispatch added, "McNary has said that he was concerned about the future of the airport and about maintaining Lambert as the chief airport in the region." It discussed how only the city benefited financially from the then-$65 million annual budget reaping its general fund $4 million a year.

"We just want to be joint owner of the airport," McNary said. He added that the county would pay its half share of the airport through money raised by revenue bonds that would be retired by airport proceeds.

Well, that didn't happen. But other stuff did, like building that $1.1 billion runway that didn't work out so well, and TWA collapsing, and the World Trade Center bombings and American Airlines changing its mind about a hub after all.

As if that weren't enough, we ended the past decade with the 2019 implosion of two big ideas: the toxic Better Together fiasco and the really-scandalous-looking airport privatization deal. The two dreadful episodes did rally people from all over the region around one central point of agreement: We need to get big ideas from someone not named Rex Sinquefield or any other person who has offered a big idea to date.

Apparently taking that principle literally, a sizeable group of "county and municipal leaders in St. Louis, St. Charles and Jefferson County" are reported by the Post-Dispatchto be "floating the idea" of buying Lambert from the city. They've even discussed setting up a "massive special sales taxing district" spanning their counties and more to get it done.

The date of the story announcing this exciting development was, fittingly, January 1, 2020. I suppose I should weigh in on its merits, but for now, I'd rather not. For some reason, the timing is making me think about 1920. I've never been more tempted to put a column in a time capsule.

"Hello there, good people of 2120, here's an idea we were thinking about ... "

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).

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