By ALAN J. ORTBALS
The recent brouhaha between Illinois and Missouri over the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency reminds me of the battle between the states over an airport 40 years ago. That one was won by Missouri too with awful results. I hope their victory here bears better fruit but I don’t think that it will.
Lambert-St. Louis International Airport has an interesting history, dating back to 1920 when Albert Lambert signed a lease with an option to buy a 160-acre farm northwest of downtown St. Louis. In 1925, he exercised that option and established the Lambert-St. Louis Flying Field. Soon after, Charles Lindbergh started flying the mail between St. Louis and Chicago.
With its excellent location in the center of the country, Lambert grew rapidly. By 1972, it was servicing nearly six million passengers per year with projections of 31 million by 2000. Such growth would require a huge expansion and a plan was drawn up to acquire 1,000 additional acres, taking out both the McDonnell Douglas and Ford plants.
This proposal met with stern opposition and Mayor Alphonse Cervantes of the city of St. Louis, which now owned the airport, came up with a better idea—replace the hemmed in Lambert with a brand new airport on the farm fields of Southwestern Illinois. The idea was endorsed by the federal government when the U.S. Department of Transportation approved the purchase of the land in September 1976. In doing so, Secretary William Coleman Jr. said, “I cannot find that Lambert could be improved, modernized and developed sufficiently to the need (of the greater St. Louis area in the 1990s and beyond).”
If you think Missourians went ballistic over the possibility of the NGA moving to Illinois, you should have seen their reaction to the Columbia-Waterloo airport idea. They mounted a legal and political onslaught that resulted in the feds rescinding the approval of the land purchase. The Illinois airport concept was officially dead.
Having driven the enemy from the gate, St. Louis relaxed and did nothing about expanding Lambert for more than a decade. Finally, they came up with four alternative plans in 1989. Their favorite, called F-4, required the purchase and demolition of more than 600 homes, 300 apartments, 60 businesses and would cost nearly $2 billion.
They fought over that for six years, ultimately scrapped it and came up with several new plans in 1995. After years more of legal fights and political wrangling, the new W-1W plan was approved. The new runway didn’t open until April 2006, nearly 35 years after the Columbia-Waterloo airport was first proposed.
In the late ‘80s, Lambert ranked seventh in the nation in terms of passenger traffic. Today, it’s 31st. What a surprise! It certainly makes you wonder where the region would be today if we had followed Cervantes’ lead and built an airport with the capacity and expandability to meet the needs of the 21st century.
I’m writing this prior to the final decision on the NGA but it’s because I doubt anything will change. And, I suspect that, like the airport decision 40 years ago, Missouri parochialism will cost the region dearly.
I hope St. Louis and Secretary Cardillo are right — that the new NGA on North Jefferson will lead a renaissance in north St. Louis — but I doubt that it will have any effect at all. The NGA will not provide one job, nor good, nor service for the people of north St. Louis. The 3,000 employees will come from throughout the metro area, drive into a fenced and guarded lot, work and drive home at the end of the day. The Pruitt-Igoe site, vacant for the last 40 years, will still be vacant. Developers will not build homes across the street because the NGA employees won’t want to move and there will be no more reason for someone to live there then as there is now. With unemployment still at 25 percent and poverty still rampant, there won’t be a store or bank or coffee shop opened because the NGA will have created no wealth in the neighborhood to support such things. The city will still have to figure out how to revitalize an area that has seen decades of decline.
I think Scott Air Force Base will be fine but the catalyst for development that the NGA would have provided will not be realized. It won’t be there to attract other DOD missions and agencies and add to the two dozen technology companies that currently service Scott.
The smart play, the one that would have created the most jobs, the most wealth and the most GDP growth, was in the cornfield of St. Clair County. North St. Louis needed real economic development. Neither will happen now. Once again, we’ve been our own worst enemy.
Alan J. Ortbals is president and publisher of the Illinois Business Journal. He can be reached at [email protected] or (618) 659-1977.
By ALAN J. ORTBALS