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

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click to enlarge In his final weeks as St. Louis Mayor, Francis Slay shocked city lawmakers by setting Lambert Airport on a path to possible privatization. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • In his final weeks as St. Louis Mayor, Francis Slay shocked city lawmakers by setting Lambert Airport on a path to possible privatization.

Francis Slay's new digs at the law firm Spencer Fane aren't shabby by any stretch, but they're no Room 200 in City Hall. The conference room where he meets a reporter on a recent Friday afternoon lacks the wood-paneled gravitas of his old office's antechamber. Still, the new environment seems right for the former mayor, who's dressed casually, tieless in a dark gray blazer and blue shirt.

Since leaving office in April — capping a sixteen-year mayoral run — Slay has hardly made a peep on public issues. He says he declines all media requests that ask him to weigh in on his chosen successor, Lyda Krewson. He knows how hard it is to be mayor; she doesn't need a critic harping from the sidelines.

On the matter of his own administration's role in airport privatization, though, Slay is willing to open up, particularly to defend himself from accusations that he's somehow letting Sinquefield get his hands on the airport. But even as the privatization process has become plagued by political infighting, he professes to have no regrets.

"Looking back I don't think we would have done it any differently," Slay says. "Because if we would have done it differently we wouldn't even be here."

Slay says his path to considering privatization began in late 2015, when he was approached by former Obama administration official David Agnew, who had moved on to lobbying for Australia-based investment firm Macquarie Group. Agnew pitched the FAA's pilot program as a way to improve the airport and open up revenue sources for the city. Agnew's firm wasn't the only party eyeing a possible role of running St. Louis' airport, and over the next year, Slay says he started looking into what it would take to nab a spot in the pilot program.

But even with the city's acceptance, there are numerous places the deal could stall. Privatization is, of course, dependent on finding a lessee with favorable terms. And any deal is subject to an army of potential vetoes, including ones from the FAA, the airlines, the Board of Aldermen and the city's three-person Board of Estimate and Apportionment. The city charter would also have to be amended, which would require approval by either the aldermen or by St. Louis voters in a special election.

To Slay, the pitfalls were worth the possible rewards. "Something bold and big needs to happen to our airport," he says. Slay is quick to note the airport's recent improvements under director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, whom he appointed. The airport moved nearly 15 million total passengers in 2017, and will add five flights to Iceland later this year. It's increased passengers for four consecutive years.

"But these are all baby steps," Slay warns. He believes the airport can be more, and he holds up the past as potential: "We need to be where we used to be. And we're not even close."

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY KELLY GLUECK
  • ILLUSTRATION BY KELLY GLUECK

Slay knew the process, even under a rosy scenario, wouldn't be cheap. Chicago, which twice came achingly close to privatizing Chicago Midway International Airport, reportedly spent millions on the snowballing costs to hire experienced consultants and negotiate with private operators.

St. Louis was already spending millions to try to keep an NFL team and retain its contract with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Slay says he didn't have the cash to throw around.

"So," he says, preparing to dig into arguably the most divisive aspect of the airport deal, "that's when I talked to Rex Sinquefield."

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