Airport Advisory Working Group

The Airport Advisory Working Group held its first meeting on July 2.

Sounds like the Rex Sinquefield-controlled nonprofit Grow Missouri Inc. just got the boot from handling online community outreach on the airport privatization deal – and the contract with St. Louis city hasn’t even been executed yet.

Grow Missouri, an organization funded by retired financer Rex Sinquefield, is leading the team that is providing consulting for St. Louis city over the next 18 to 24 months on whether or not they should lease out some or all of its biggest asset – St. Louis Lambert International Airport. Grow Missouri is paying for all the consulting costs upfront, but would get all that money back if a deal is signed.

The organization launched to keep the public informed on various aspects of the deal and is also active on social media. Although the contract has not been signed by all parties and executed, the mayor’s office has already been sending media inquiries to Grow Missouri as if they are the official spokesman on the deal.  

Grow Missouri answers directly to the city’s Airport Advisory Working Group, which includes representatives from the offices of the mayor, comptroller and president of the Board of Aldermen – along with Alderwoman Marlene Davis, the head of the aldermanic transportation committee, and Lambert’s director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge.

The city’s budget director, Paul Payne, leads the group – thank God for small mercies. Payne is an ardent advocate for informing the public and for real transparency. And he didn’t fail us at the Working Group’s first meeting on July 2.

At the Monday meeting, Payne said that needs to provide information and not “editorial.”

“We want to make sure that they're not going, ‘Hey, what a great idea,’ or ‘This is what you want to do,’” Payne said. “I’ll give you a prime example.”

Payne said he looked on the website’s “transparency portal.” There were statements and press releases posted after the members of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment (E&A) – which includes Mayor Lyda Krewson, aldermanic President Lewis Reed and Comptroller Darlene Green – voted 2-1 to approve the contract with Grow Missouri’s team. The comptroller voted against the contract, while Krewson and Reed voted for it.

“I see the mayor’s press release,” Payne said. “I see the president’s press release. But the comptroller’s release is not on there. They can’t do that. They should have full disclosure, put it out there, and every opinion should be represented.”

Hamm-Niebruegge jumped in as well.

“To tag onto that, Friday I think there were two posts,” she said. “One was from the Missouri Chamber Dan Mehan and the other was from one of the union groups. Editorials about, ‘this is a good thing.’ It should be objective not subjective.”

Both Hamm-Niebruegge and Davis said, “I thought it wasn’t going to start until after this meeting.”

Davis saw a tweet over the weekend from Grow Missouri that she didn’t like, she said. A group of citizens is gathering signatures for a petition that calls for a public vote on airport privatization. She said the tweet made fun of the group’s name – St. Louis: Not For Sale.

“I don’t like that snark stuff,” Davis said. “Whoever it is coming from, it needs to stop.”

That’s when Jim Garavaglia, representing the comptroller’s office suggested that the Working Group start its own website.

“Everything else is somebody else’s opinion,” Garavaglia said. “It’s somebody else’s tweet. If you want the official story of where the city is in any point in time, the information is available at the Airport Advisory Working Group website. To me, the example that you gave where someone discreetly edited out a press release can’t ever happen again.”

According to the contract, Grow Missouri will underwrite the cost of two staff positions dedicated to helping the Working Group. At the meeting, they suggested having one staff person manage this new website. They did not make any decisions on this matter Monday, however.

“You really get in trouble sometimes when you have your PR firms working for you,” Davis said, “and all of the sudden you wake up and you’re destroyed.”  

Highway shutdown 

There is a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office in downtown St. Louis city. But that’s not where the 300 clergy, immigration activists and community members chose to hold their nonviolent action on Saturday, June 30. They went to Troy, Missouri.

“It’s out of our comfort zone,” said Rev. Darryl Gray, one of the action’s organizers. “You can drive 45 minutes to an hour from St. Louis, and you will find an active white supremacy community. That’s a Missouri reality. We are not afraid to step, figuratively-speaking, into the lion’s den to let the lion know we will not be threatened. That was part of the message that we wanted to send.”

At about noon, the protestors held a rally at the Lincoln County Detention Center in Troy, where ICE is housing about seven or more immigrants. Several suspicious cars drove around the rally, trying to intimidate the group, but there were no confrontations with white supremacists, Gray said. Then about 100 protestors shut down the Highway 61 for about 45 minutes. No one was arrested (which was not the intention, as it sometimes is), and Gray even commended the Highway Patrol for giving three dispersal notices and not “over-reacting.”

The action was part of the Families Belong Together national day of protest against president’s policy to forcibly separating children from their parents, as well as family detention centers.

Gray, who was a leader during the protests after Jason Stockley’s not guilty verdict, said the Troy action was not spontaneous.

“We recognize Missouri is the heart of America, and what people have seen from Ferguson to Stockley is a very energized and committed activist community,” Gray said. “There are those around the country who are watching how activists in Missouri react to issues. We don’t take it lightly that people are watching. We go extra lengths to make sure that we are planning in advance, that we walk it through.”

The president has essentially declared war on people of color, Gray said. And black activists will stand alongside their brown brothers and sisters to fight against this administration’s racism, (and quite frankly, terrorism against black and brown people.) The president should actually be grateful for these activists, he said because people are angry.

“We try to make a difference through nonviolence so those who really are tired won’t seek other means,” Gray said. “We are the last line of defense in this war.”

Also on Saturday, Gray was named the chairperson of the Progressive Caucus of the Missouri Democratic Party. He said he spent 40 years with the Southern Christian Conference and has been organizing in St. Louis since 2016.

Gray said, “I’m thankful for the challenge.” 

Spencer isn’t messing around 

On Friday, June 29, Alderwoman Cara Spencer (D-20th Ward) stood before the full Board of Alderman and asked them to approve a resolution that called on Attorney General Josh Hawley and the FBI to investigate the “alleged wrongdoing involving Northside Regeneration,” along with its owner, Paul McKee, and his representatives. McKee’s 1,500-acre redevelopment project in north St. Louis has received millions in development incentives.

It passed without opposition – not even from 5th Ward Alderwoman Tammika Hubbard, who has been one of McKee’s strongest supporters and who represents the ward that includes the majority of the redevelopment footprint.

“I want to get to the bottom of it,” Spencer told the American. “I’m not going to make any accusations but it certainly appears that some major wrongdoing has happened. I don’t think an internal investigation is sufficient.”

The investigation would pursue allegations that McKee inflated property values to gain more state tax credits when he purchased buildings, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported last week. The accusations arose during a trial in St. Louis Circuit Court on May 9, where Jim Osher was fighting the city’s acquisition via eminent domain of the former Buster Brown shoe factory at Jefferson and Cass avenues. In court, he used a 2011 sale of the property to McKee’s Northside Regeneration company for $3.75 million to demonstrate the building’s value.

But city officials from the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority argued in the trial that the property was only worth $573,000. The LCRA’s attorney claimed McKee inflated the purchase price of the property to receive additional tax credits from the state.

An attorney representing McKee's Northside Regeneration company did not respond to the American’s request for comment about Spencer’s resolution.

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