St. Louis Airport Trade Upgrade on Deck

Cargo, people and aircraft from around the world soon could be landing at MidAmerica St. Louis Airport under federal legislation recently approved in the U.S. Senate.

Sen. Dick Durbin last week amended the pending 2006 Homeland Security appropriations bill to grant federal port-of-entry status to the airport. The classification means MidAmerica could accept international merchandise and would enforce U.S. Customs laws.

"All you have to do is dream about what this bill does," airport director Tim Cantwell said. "Local business is international. If you don't have an international touch, you might just be aced out of the market."

There already are 317 official ports of entry in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection. The bureau enforces the federal government's import and export laws and regulations at all these locations.

MidAmerica officials have been working to gain port-of-entry status for years. Efforts last year fell short of the goal, Cantwell said. Durbin said he was prompted to resubmit the request this year by a recent conversation with local leaders.

"They made a very compelling case for MidAmerica Airport's need for port-of-entry status, and gave several recent examples of problems encountered at the airport on both passenger flights and freight shipments due to MidAmerica's lack of port-of-entry status," Durbin, a Springfield Democrat, said in a written statement.

It's even more imperative to gain the status with a $7 million cargo terminal expected to be completed by the first week of September, Cantwell said.

The nearest port of entry for Southern Illinois lies across the Mississippi River. Lambert St. Louis International Airport and Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield both hold port-of-entry status. In Illinois, the nearest are in Peoria, Chicago, Rockford and the Quad Cities.

MidAmerica Airport already enjoys status as a free-trade zone.

The federal government in October 2003 designated 3,851 acres at MidAmerica and 2,700 acres of undeveloped land surrounding the airport as a foreign-trade zone. The foreign trade designation allows merchandise to be treated as if it weren't within U.S. boundaries.

Items stored, assembled, manufactured or processed within a foreign-trade zone aren't subject to formal U.S. Customs entry procedures. This treatment allows a company to avoid or delay the payment of customs duties or payment of federal excise taxes.

Establishing MidAmerica as a port of entry would open up all of Southern Illinois and the metro-east, specifically, to additional opportunities in international trade, Cantwell said. The bill still needs to be ratified by the House of Representatives and signed by President Bush.

"We have every confidence in the world that (Durbin) and (U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello) can get this bill through Congress," Cantwell said.

Durbin's office shared in Cantwell's confidence. "This is something we don't expect to be taken out of the bill," Durbin spokesman Angela Benander said.