For what may be the first time ever, MidAmerica Airport expects to draw a big crowd this weekend. Men and women from more than a dozen states will flock to a 5-acre piece of ground across from the cargo terminal near Mascoutah.
They aren't coming for cheap flights to Vegas or to grab seats on some startup airline. They're coming for a rodeo. The 15th annual Belleville Optimist rodeo, to be specific.
"You could have the opportunity to make a thousand jokes about that, but it's a positive value for us," said Tim Cantwell, the airport director. "We're not using that land."
Cantwell wasn't horsing around about the jokes. It's no bull that the airport, built 10 years ago as a reliever for Lambert Field, has had little to relieve. Cantwell and officials in St. Clair County have scrambled to rope in business for MidAmerica. (That's the three-joke limit.)
Allegiant Airlines is the only passenger service at MidAmerica, offering five or six flights a week to Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla. In April, the airport got its first international flight when a cargo plane loaded with seed corn flew in from Chile, but that was a one-time event. It's generous to call traffic at the $213 million airport "light."
Knowing that, perhaps it could have charged more than $500 for renting the ground to the Optimists for the weekend rodeo. That's not much of a money-maker. Cantwell claims the real benefit is getting people out so they see the airport.
"We're going to be pushing the airline business," he said. "There's a rodeo out in Las Vegas (in December)," so maybe rodeogoers in Mascoutah will want to buy air tickets to get to that event, he said.
Corky Helms of Belleville is the man behind the rodeo. He's the co-chairman of the event for the Belleville Optimists. Helms has raised horses for years and raised two sons who competed in rodeos. He said the idea to hold the rodeo at the airport had actually come from another member of the Optimists - St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern.
Last year, the Family Sportsplex in Belleville was the site for the rodeo. The location was good, but Helms says the airport is better.
"There's a lot of room, there's good parking, it's easy for the cowboys to find and there's no crowds to fight," Helms said. "And we don't have to worry about tearing up anyone's ground, since it's just sitting here empty."
The rodeo will be held Friday and Saturday nights. Although plenty of contestants will be coming from states such as Oklahoma and Kansas, competitors from places such as Collinsville, O'Fallon and Smithton are entered in some events, too.
What now is nothing more than a vacant field will begin its transformation into a rodeo arena on Tuesday. That's when the stock contractor will begin setting up the arena and pens that will hold the bulls, broncs, calves and steers. On Thursday, the Optimists will take over and help set up lights, bleachers, restrooms and a concession stand, Helms said.
Because the stock contractor and the Optimists are taking care of all the setup, Cantwell said, there's no extra expense for the county. That makes the ground rental even more attractive to Cantwell, who says he's open to considering different uses for the land, which otherwise sits untouched.
"We look at other income opportunities, but we turn some of them down," he said. "A kid asking for a paintball facility, no. And I don't want to have people asking if they can have their wedding out there."
So weddings are out, but the rodeo is in. For two nights, at least, the area around the airport will bustle with people watching bull-riding and barrel racing and steer wrestling. Which is far more entertaining than sitting in an empty terminal watching a silent luggage carousel any day.
MidAmerica St. Louis Airport will offer daily flights next year for the first time in the airport's history.
Allegiant, which flies four flights weekly from MidAmerica Airport to Las Vegas, has had talks with airport officials about the run to the Sanford-Orlando area in Florida.
MidAmerica is looking into the possibility of contracting with the government's General Services Administration to provide flights to federal employees to the Washington area.
Ten days after losing yet another passenger service at MidAmerica St. Louis Airport, Mark Kern predicts that 2006 will be a record revenue year for the troubled, taxpayer-funded operation.