MidAmerica St. Louis Airport unveiled its 50,000-square-foot cargo building Monday morning with hopes of giving the struggling air field new life.
One of the new tenants of the $7 million building is Sunset Transportation Inc. of St. Louis, which plans to use MidAmerica to bypass more costly shipping routes through Chicago, Memphis, Indianapolis and other Midwestern cities.
"When you have to have something shipped into Chicago on a 747 and the plane is vectored around the airport for a half an hour, then it has to taxi for 15 minutes and you have significantly higher landing fees on top of that, it obviously is going to cost a lot more," Sunset Chief Executive Officer James Williams said. "That doesn't even factor in that you have to truck it here from there. It's going to make it a lot more efficient to do business in the area with this facility here."
The long, narrow structure has 37 truck docks on one side and 10 airplane docks on the other to easily transfer cargo from the air to the road.
St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern said he hopes the underutilized airport will become profitable through international air freight.
"This is a very big step toward hosting international cargo service at MidAmerica and critical element to enhancing the economic impact of the airport on all of Southern Illinois and the St. Louis region," Kern said. "We'll have over 50 percent of the space leased by the end of 2005."
Jim Pennekamp, executive director of the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois said businesses that ship perishables need the speed of air freight, as do manufacturers.
"You don't want to have to shut down the assembly line because you're waiting for one part," Pennekamp said. "We have the roads here and the river, but until now, we were always missing that vital air component. When you need it fast, it has to come by air."
State and county leaders are currently working on plans to make the cargo facility an international trade zone, allowing goods to be shipped non-stop between foreign countries and the metro-east.
MidAmerica has not been approved to have international flights. The airport either must be declared an official port of entry by Congress, or MidAmerica can accept overseas cargo by agreeing to cover the $250,000 annual cost of having a Customs office there for at least two years, after which time the airport becomes an entry port, airport director Tim Cantwell said. Either designation is expected by the end of the year, he said.
RT Jones analyst Juli Niemann, among those who questioned the wisdom of building MidAmerica as a passenger option to Lambert, said MidAmerica's quest for cargo makes sense, partly because of the airport's proximity to freeways.
"I really think this is exactly the direction they need to go," said Niemann, who is based in St. Louis. The cargo terminal "is one of those rare cases where if you build it, they will come. I just hope it's not a day late and a dollar short."
Kern said county leaders have not yet given up on passenger airlines, hinting that an announcement about a new passenger carrier at MidAmerica could come as soon as the end of the week.
MidAmerica, which opened in 1998 and cost about $330 million, currently has one passenger carrier, Allegiant Airlines, following the bankruptcy of TransMeridian Airlines last month.
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