Director Optimistic About MidAmerica Airport

MidAmerica Airport's metamorphosis into an air cargo hub is supposed to wrap up its final stage in July.

And once cargo operations get going, Kern continued, "the revenues from these operations will also contribute toward payment of the fixed operational costs of the airport."

But the county goal of a profitable airport faces stiff challenges in the years ahead. That's because of the county's repayment schedule on more than $60 million in bonds, payable over 30 years, the county issued in 1999 to finance its share of airport construction.

In 2006 St. Clair County is scheduled to make payments on interest and principal totaling $1.13 million, according to county audits.

By 2008 the annual debt payment will increase to $1.74 million. And between 2009 and 2015 the county must pay back an average of $3.8 million per year, county audits show.

The reserve fund to pay back this debt started at $50 million, but has since shrunk to about $31 million.

If the airport continues to operate at a loss by 2016, then things could get real interesting.

Between 2016 and 2029, the county will be expected to pay back more than $106 million in interest and principal on the original debt -- an average of about $7.6 million per year.

Some Republican leaders have already sounded alarm bells about the ballooning debt.

In an October 2003 interview, former County Board member Joe Behnken, a certified public accountant, warned that when the bonds come due, the airport cash reserves needed to cover losses "... are gonna melt like an ice cube in July.... Then watch your taxes go up."

Republican County Board member Steve Reeb, of Shiloh, echoed the same point, warning that "The piper's going to come calling pretty soon. I don't see how it can't be a problem."

Dan Maher, the chief of staff for Kern, has repeatedly stated that controls baked into the airport's financial operations will prevent tax increases. Maher did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

Cantwell acknowledged the many challenges confronting MidAmerica Airport.

But the optimism is "coming right now," he said, "and it will be here by the end of the year, and it's called international cargo."

Belleville News Democrat

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