Air cargo expert says St. Louis wants a $360 million 'ransom'

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Michael Webber thinks St. Louis is delusional.
  • Michael Webber thinks St. Louis is delusional.
Business and political leaders in Missouri want Lambert-St. Louis International Airport to become a major receptacle for stuff made in China. State lawmakers are considering an incentive package worth $360 million in an effort to remake Lambert into an international trade hub.

The St. Louis Regional Chamber & Growth Association says Aerotropolis, as it’s being called, will generate thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars in new economic activity. The skeptics include the liberal Missouri Budget Project, the libertarian Show-Me Institute, and a guy who co-wrote a recent book with the very title Aerotropolis. “Calling some cargo flights and warehouses an aerotropolis doesn’t make it one,” Greg Lindsay, the author and Fast Company writer, said in a tweet in July.

One of the fiercest opponents of Aerotropolis lives in Prairie Village. Michael Webber, an air cargo consultant and self-described “insurgent,” spent a portion of his summer pelting the media with criticism of the project, which he has described as a “boondoggle” and a “white elephant.”

Webber’s main point is this: There’s no way that St. Louis is going to attract enough air cargo to justify the incentives. There’s already too much capacity in the system. The notion of building 27 million square feet of warehouse space around Lambert is, in Webber’s mind, “just insane.”

Webber was appalled when the Missouri House and Senate passed versions of an Aerotropolis bill earlier this year. “The legislators just passed it because it sounded like a hell of an idea,” Webber tells The Pitch.

The legislative session ended, however, before the General Assembly could agree on a final version of the legislation. At Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s request, lawmakers will return to Jefferson City next week to consider Aerotropolis and other economic-development proposals that were crowded out by discussions about Sharia law and abortion.

As Webber sees it, the only acceptable Aerotropolis bill is a dead Aerotropolis bill. “There is no good version of this,” he says.

The idea for Aerotropolis hinges on the idea that Chicago is crowded with cargo planes from China, Webber says. But O’Hare handles less cargo today than it did in 2000. O’Hare is also expanding.

The city of Chicago is one of Webber’s clients, but he’s not the only one to suggest that St. Louis will have a hard time stealing the Second City’s air cargo business. The Missouri Budget Project’s analysis says there is “excessive unused existing capacity for international cargo movement throughout the Midwest and beyond.”

Some of this excess capacity is in St. Louis. CB Richard Ellis is trying to lease a 405,000-square-foot warehouse near the airport. “If someone’s looking for space, we have space available,” a vice president at the real-estate brokerage company told a researcher from the Show-Me Institute.

Webber is dismayed that politicians and economic-development officials in and around Kansas City seem to be giving Aerotropolis a pass. Tom McKenna, a marketing director at Kansas City International Airport, criticized the proposal in a recent edition of The Kansas City Star, saying taxpayers should be concerned. But for the most part, St. Louis’ on-spec relationship with China’s trade ministry hasn’t generated much opposition from official Kansas City.

Business and political leaders in this area may be reluctant to fuss, out of concern for their own agenda. During the special session, the General Assembly will also consider legislation designed to encourage the growth of science and technology businesses and other KC-friendly eco-devo items.

Aerotropolis, Webber says, represents a “$360 million ransom for St. Louis.”


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