IBJ: What was the challenge when you were hired?
Cantwell: When I came over here in late 2002, the challenge from (then-St. Clair County Board Chairman) John Baricevic was, “Here’s where we are: What are your plans to move forward?”
This was post TWA bankruptcy. Post 9/11. Post de-hubbing by American (Airlines at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport). Any one of those changes the initial decision to build MidAmerica (as a reliever airport in 1997). What were we going to do?
As I looked at the region and measured the five towered airports, I saw business covered, I saw business passenger service covered with express freight and small packages, but I didn’t see bulk freight. It’s kind of like having a region without a cement factory.
Running an airport is an easy thing, but building a market is a hard thing. I didn’t inherit a book of business.
It took me about 18 months to write a business plan. When we built this model, this master plan, which we updated in 2007, we built in a lot of cargo.
We’re not a cookie cutter. Aviation has different facets to it and we’re growing the pie in the entire region, but not with the same business plan that Lambert has or that Alton (St. Louis Regional) has or that Downtown has.
IBJ: So cargo is where you’re zeroing in?
Cantwell: The No. 1 business I did inherit was joint use (with adjacent Scott Air Force Base). You never diss your current businesses. You grow them. So our No. 1 priority is to be the best joint-use airport in the nation. So when you find out Scott Air Force Base is the best place to be assigned, as was discerned this year by Air Force Times, that is a success that we want to take a little credit for. We work with them to operate the entire airport together. They get two runways for the price of one. That’s gold star. We’ve got great relationships. I work daily with the wing commander over there. It helps that I was a commander.
IBJ: All this has been a long time coming ...
Cantwell: A quick statement first. It took $300 to $313 million to make MidAmerica. That was to buy all that land, build all this stuff (the terminal and infrastructure), and then to build 1,000 houses to replace Wherry Housing, clean it up, build the (Air National Guard’s) 126th air refueling area and the ramp, the 7,000-foot taxiway and the tower, new firing range, refurbishment of their runway and to buy the land inside and out of Scott AFB as buffer.
So, when you look at a billion dollars to make one runway at Lambert. And now Scott has all this? The biggest business (employer) in Southern Illinois? We have to support the No. 1 business, but we have to do it amiably, which we are doing.
But we had to get the baseline right. We had to make this all an enterprise zone, had to make it a foreign trade zone, had to make it a Port of Entry (for U.S. Customs). Those are not easy things in the public sector. It took almost five of my first 10 years to do it.
IBJ: You’ve been working on establishing an international trade route?
Cantwell: Our moniker from the beginning has been, “Enhancing the region’s economy through air service.” And once you start a trade route, it never stops. We’ve been working with a partner, Ningbo Lishe International Airport, NGB, in China. And we are dual-marketing a cool chain that doesn’t exist today, to take care of transport of fresh foods. When those products fly they would be in an enclosed cool chain. From the cool truck to the cool warehouse to the airplane that stays cool. The flights would go into Ningbo, which is three hours south of Shanghai, around which 250 million people live. You don’t think there’s a market there? Their expectation of middle and high class foods from here is going up. We have buyers and sellers all over the place, trying to get into China. I lead trade missions for groups roughly once a quarter.
IBJ: How many trade missions so far?
Cantwell: If I said 15, it would be low. My partner comes here once every half (year), so we meet six times a year. We’ve been building this trade route, and they want to get to South America with their goods. That’s fine with me. And we’ve got tons of partners down in South America who want their goods and services to go to China. Fresh, fruits and vegetables, and they can come right through here.
IBJ: Some things on the horizon are bound to change ...?
Cantwell: ... dramatically. But the foundation is strong. Besides joint use, it’s international cargo. This region does not have direct lift out of here for goods and services from throughout the world. It all goes to Chicago. There are no international cargo flights going in and out of Lambert.
The charters are coming in here. And that’s how the wave starts. You show success. You get an anchor tenant and we’ve got an anchor tenant in North Bay Produce, an international producer. They provide fruits and vegetables year round to the world. But not quite to Asia yet. That’s one of their growth areas and that’s why they came here.
Goods and services cannot fly easily from South America to Asia because they have to go on a truck from Miami or other points of destination. There is triple handling in the middle of the United States and some goods and services cannot get there. The (MidAmerica) business model is based on linking Latin America to Asia, through us, in a trade route, and then teaching everyone here how to use it.
IBJ: What is the potential for MidAmerica with the new interchange being built on I-64 near Scott Air Force Base?
Cantwell: Exit 21. It’s unfathomable. It’s been a 10-year project. It is a traffic reliever for Scott Air Force Base (which has around 14,000 workers and no good access from the north). Much of their population has to go around (the airport) and it really bogs down — inside and outside — at certain times. Now, it won’t be eight miles around anymore.
IBJ: What’s the interchange going to do for you?
Cantwell: It’s MidAmerica property. When I inherited this place, this land was all supposed to be for aeronautical use. FAA had a process to go through and they wanted to know what we wanted to do with the land, and I said, I want to make it nonaeronautical compatible, meaning you can’t have houses, but you can have light industrial, retail, warehousing, refrigeration ... . We have a master plan for that and I’ve been prosecuting that master plan.
IBJ: Now, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in St. Louis is considering MidAmerica land as one of three possible sites to relocate its operations. Tell me why yours is the best choice.
Cantwell: It’s one owner, St. Clair County. It’s one municipality, St. Clair County. We have experience in releasing FAA land to a federal agency already. You can take a spray can and tell me what you want. If you need it bigger. If you need it smaller. If you want a road. It’s a gorgeous site. You’ve got utilities. You’ve got direct interstate access. You’ve got planned setbacks. This is nonaeronautical compatible. It’s developable land. There’s 2,300 acres on this side. Their acreage is about 200 and they’d only need about 110. We’ll work with whatever they need.
IBJ: Walk us through the past year, with any big things that happened.
Cantwell: Allegiant (Air passenger service) coming back was a huge thing. Orlando (Fla. service) has been exploding. They were so happy they wanted another destination, so we just added Tampa-St.Pete. But it needs to get some teeth.
We want to become the doorstep for the region to Florida. You drive to MidAmerica, park for free and you don’t walk more than 600 feet without being on the runway or the highway. We’re family and senior friendly. It’s comfortable, it’s lighted. When I ask people about their flight, if it was on time, 90 percent of the time they’ll say, “I’ve never experienced flying like this.” It’s private business flying for scheduled service prices.
IBJ: You’ve had a lot of struggles. Are you turning the corner?
Cantwell: Let’s talk about the corners I’m supposed to turn. Is it the passenger service and everybody going to Boise, Idaho, for $19.95? That’s years down the road. Is it leisure service where everybody can go once a year to a vacation spot and have a great experience? We’re there. And we can use that model, not for the four major (airlines) but for the 11 or 12 minors.
In the cargo world? We’re a long way around the corner and we’re starting to fill in. That’s really hard to understand unless you talk to the people who are making money on it. But our idea is not to import. Our idea is to explode exports. We have untapped capabilities in a 500-mile region that can’t get new customers, and the world is where the new customers are. Safe, certified, secure foods — because everyone trusts American foods.