SET TO TAKE OFF? MidAmerica St. Louis Airport, built a decade ago, continues to struggle. AIRPORT TURNS 10

Beverly Byrd knew the airport was out here. And that's about all she knew. Her travel friend, Verlinda Williams, was even more in the dark.

"I had never heard of it," Williams said. "I can't believe it's 10 years old."

And with that simple observation, a group of four North St. Louis County women heading to Las Vegas for a long weekend summed up the MidAmerica St. Louis Airport's decade-long history here.

Many travelers don't know there's a commercial airport here. Those who do don't know much about it.

Since it opened 10 years ago this month, MidAmerica has struggled to gain momentum. Some industry analysts say the airport was a political fiasco, a boondoggle that never should have been built. But supporters say MidAmerica business is about to pick up.

MidAmerica cost $313 million in 1997. St. Clair County put in $30 million, the state $60 million and the U.S. government the rest. Built on 4,500 acres of farm fields along Interstate 64, MidAmerica boasted a convenient location with little traffic. It would offer plenty of free parking and security.

A 1997 St. Clair County report predicted that MidAmerica, which is owned by the county, could be serving 1.1 million passengers a year by 2000.

MidAmerica was supposed to be a reliever airport and take some of the strain off what used to be a busy Lambert Airport, which in the 1990s was a hub anchored by Trans World Airlines.

Construction began without the commitment of a single tenant.

"Reason for concern?" John Baricevic, the St. Clair County chairman, wrote in a Post-Dispatch guest editorial. "Not at all."

A grand opening was held Nov. 8, 1997, but a VIP dinner had to be canceled because the airport's $8.7 million terminal building wasn't finished. Off to a dubious start, more bad luck hit.

TWA was acquired by American Airlines, which later pulled half of its flights out of Lambert, 9/11 discouraged air travel, and Lambert built another $1.1 billion runway.

The county even decided in 2004 to cut back on expenses by killing the interior lights during slow times.

Michael Boyd, an aviation industry adviser, worried 10 years ago that the airport wouldn't succeed.

"Now it's a good example for the nation to look at and avoid in the future," Boyd said. "The fact is there was no compelling reason to build that airport."

St. Clair County Board member Frank Heiligenstein, a 31-year political veteran, made the motion to build MidAmerica. A decade later, he's uncertain it was a good idea.

"I would say that MidAmerica has never achieved the goals that we had set," he said.

Knowing what he knows today, would he still build it?

"That would have been questionable," he said.

Today, MidAmerica's operating budget costs the county about $3.1 million a year. But the airport has enjoyed some success, Heiligenstein said.

"We would not even be talking about Scott Air Force Base if MidAmerica had not been built," Heiligenstein said.

Airport director Tim Cantwell said MidAmerica's runway and air tower likely made the base more essential to the military. The two facilities have benefited from a joint operation agreement, one that Cantwell says is about to become even more lucrative.

The agreement allows the two groups to share costs and services. A new agreement is expected to save the county $700,000 by allowing use of the military's fire rescue operation.

Still, Cantwell acknowledges that the local industry's landscape is different now, and MidAmerica will never be a reliever to Lambert. So Cantwell is focusing on other areas.

A burgeoning international air cargo industry, which Cantwell said the airport is ideal for, will allow MidAmerica to enjoy a 10-fold bump in business over the next year.

As of Wednesday, the airport had serviced 648 tons of cargo this year. Cantwell promised that the airport would handle 6,480 tons of cargo next year.

"The more activity is happening, the more the economy is churning," he said. "It's real fun. We're going to build a market here. ... We want to be the USA's portal to the world."

Boyd isn't as hopeful.

"There's nothing to turn around. You've built something that isn't needed."

Today the airport has one passenger airline, Allegiant, which offers flights to Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla. It's mostly quiet during the day. It picks up a bit a couple of hours before a flight.

Either way, the group heading to Las Vegas was impressed.

Verlinda Williams, 70, had never flown before in her life. But just prior to boarding, the experience wasn't so bad.

"It's cheap, it's clean, it's not real crowded," Williams said. "It just seems safe."

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MidAmerica By the Numbers

Passengers

2002 4,915

2003 5,817

2004 11,862

2005 53,980

2006 57,217

2007 54,329

(as of Nov. 21, forecast is for 60,000 this year)

Cargo

2002 0

2003 4 Tons

2004 16 Tons

2005 8 Tons

2006 15 Tons

2007 648 Tons

(as of Nov. 21)

Source: MidAmerica

St. Louis Airport


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