Will Air Cargo Save MidAmerica?

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.

Kern estimated that for 2004, the latest audit period, the amount that was transferred from the county's general fund to offset losses was $2.4 million to $2.8 million.

Transfers from the county's general fund have not resulted in hikes in the tax rate, county leaders maintain.

Big plans for cargo

Kern and Cantwell's international cargo plan has supporters including Democrat Kern's primary political rival, Steve Reeb.

"I've said all along that cargo is the way to go," said Reeb, a Republican County Board member who ran against Kern for the chairmanship in November.

Don Bennett of O'Fallon, the former director of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, said international cargo could work.

"The location is great for that. And that sort of hub would work fine, because you're not going to make any money on domestic cargo," Bennett said. "That's going to go to Lambert because the customers are over there."

Kern, who inherited the airport challenge less than a year ago when he became county board chairman, remains optimistic despite a dwindling airport cash reserve listed at $32.5 million in the audit covering 2003.

The cash reserve started at about $50 million and was created to help cover airport operating losses and bond interest payments.

The county borrowed $50 million to cover airport construction costs while awaiting payment from the federal government. When the federal payment came in, the county decided to invest the money and pay the debt off later. The invested amount is the reserve fund.

While the debt could theoretically become a big problem if the airport never turns a profit, county leaders have said that is unlikely.

"I worry when so many negative stories come out about MidAmerica," Kern said. "I worry that the real story (of business opportunity) is getting lost in the shuffle."

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at gpawlaczyk@bnd.com or 239-2625.

Belleville News Democrat

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