MidAmerica warehouse project downsized

-- Aug. 19--MASCOUTAH -- The New York businessman who received $250,000 in taxpayer money to build a warehouse at MidAmerica St. Louis Airport has received a nine-month extension to complete the job. This is the second deadline...


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Aug. 19--MASCOUTAH -- The New York businessman who received $250,000 in taxpayer money to build a warehouse at MidAmerica St. Louis Airport has received a nine-month extension to complete the job.

This is the second deadline extension that John G. Hewitt, the owner of H Trading LLC, has received for the construction of the air cargo facility, which is seen as critical to St. Clair County's hopes of exporting perishable goods directly to China.

The deadline for the warehouse to be built had been Sept. 30. Now it is July 1, according to a lease addendum the St. Clair County Public Building Commission approved Thursday.

In addition, the addendum calls for significant reductions in the warehouse project's scope:

-- Total acreage for it shrinks from 26.4 to 1.7 acres.

-- Warehouse size drops from 62,500 square feet to 30,000 square feet.

-- The project budget drops from an initial $6 million to a range of "$2.5 million to $3 million."

Hewitt originally was supposed to finish the warehouse by April, under the original terms of the lease agreement signed with the commission in late 2010.

St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern said the commission has acted in a responsible way in negotiating a new lease, yet preserving the county and airport's "position to enhance capability with a private investor," according to a written statement issued Thursday.

Hewitt had requested the lease's renegotiation "due to economic conditions in the U.S. and world economy" that are "just now providing international trade and business activity to make the air cargo business case successful," according to the statement.

Hewitt could not be reached for comment.

County Board member Craig Hubbard, R-O'Fallon, said he was surprised the commission gave Hewitt the nine-month deadline extension and allowed him to scale back the warehouse's size.

"If they needed the larger facility I would have thought they would've stuck to their guns," said Hubbard, a critic of the county's management of the airport. "It's like anything else. If you want to buy a Lincoln Continental, you don't want to settle for a Ford Mustang. I don't understand the cutback."

Hubbard said he hopes Hewitt completes the project.

"Let's just say I'm cautiously optimistic," he said. "There's no other choice now."

In early July, the News-Democrat reported that the Internal Revenue Service, as well as the state and city of New York, had filed more than $855,000 in tax liens against properties owned by Hewitt for non-payment of personal income taxes.

Kern noted the lease was only being modified and that, should the new warehouse not be completed by July 1, the county will be reimbursed the $250,000 incentive it had given to Hewitt.

Kern called the warehouse "a key ingredient" in proven international trade routes, while the airport's convenience, highway access and location in the nation's heart "continues to make it an ideal location for both the import and export of a wide variety of goods."

In October 2005, the airport opened an $8 million warehouse paid for with 90 percent federal funds.

But last fall, the county agreed to spend $3 million turning that building into an aircraft subassembly plant for the Boeing Co. Boeing plans to have about 50 employees working at that plant by fall, a company spokeswoman said.

Hewitt reaffirmed his enthusiasm for the project, according to the written statement.

"The creation of a China hub in this region is, in my humble opinion, the biggest opportunity in America," he said. "Bold business ventures can take time, often more time than you might expect to happen. MidAmerica is a central component of this opportunity."

Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@bnd.com or 239-2533.

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