State Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, has been referred to as “Erictropolis” in news accounts of his support for what is known as “Aerotropolis.” His bill in the statehouse for a global cargo hub in St. Louis will get the spotlight right after Labor Day.
Sept. 6 is when Gov. Jay Nixon has called a special session of Missouri’s legislature to convene. Front and center on the agenda is Schmitt’s bill to increase exports and foreign trade through the development of a global air cargo hub at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport – a project with potential to create thousands of jobs.
Glendale’s Schmitt can talk nuts and bolts about Aerotropolis, often referred to as the “China Hub.” Or, he can wax philosophically about how St. Louis needs to return to the days of yore when it once was a major crossroads for both domestic and international commerce.
Aerotropolis requires passage of an economic incentives package, including major tax breaks, to get the China Hub at Lambert field off the ground. Not everyone is on board with as much as $360 million in tax credits for developers to build warehouses and the work to set up international cargo deals for the region.
“St. Louis and Missouri must not miss this opportunity,” said Schmitt. “St. Louis lost out to Chicago when the age of the steamboat ended and railroads came. We built our Eads Bridge 20 years too late.
“Now we have an opportunity to win big with air cargo transport,” said Schmitt. “We have good highways and the Mississippi for river transport. Our river ports for distribution can benefit significantly, especially when the Panama Canal widening is finally completed in 2014.”
China is a major player in all of this because it is looking for a U.S. site to land literally billions of tons of exports for distribution. Schmitt said Chicago has been “maxed out” for China’s needs, and Indianapolis and Cincinnati are cities that hope to edge out St. Louis in making a run for the huge China trade.
“Aerotropolis will not just create warehouse jobs,” said Schmitt. “The cargo planes can fly back to global destinations with exports from all over our region. And there will be assembly jobs in St. Louis for much of the cargo that is taken off the planes that land at Lambert.
“A lot of what we do economically in St. Louis is to just move the existing chess pieces around the area. I can easily say that as a former Glendale alderman watching what we do,” said Schmitt. “We also used to have so many of the Top 40 companies headquartered here, and we’ve watched them move out.
“We need to be a player again,” said Schmitt. “We need to invest in our future and our infrastructure. We have a location and transportation assets that can put us on the map again and improve our economy.”
High On China
A local China expert who will be closely following statehouse debate on Aerotropolis is former Gov. Bob Holden, chairman of Midwest-U.S. China Associates (MWCA). He also is a professor at Webster University and directs the school’s Holden Public Policy Institute.
“The MWCA doesn’t take a stand on political issues, but obviously if the state okays Aerotropolis, we would be very supportive,” said Holden. We can provide avenues to people who’ve been working with China in 10 states in a region in which St. Louis would be central.
“I understand the questions over whether Aerotropolis is good public policy. I think they are all being answered,” said Holden. “I can tell you this, China will study the St. Louis option and they will not make a bad economic decision. They do their homework on something this big.”
Holden was instrumental in 2005 in bringing a Chinese Confucius Institute to Webster University. He also played a pivotal role in getting a Confucius Institute for the University of Missouri-Columbia. The institutes are a major conduit for education, arts and cultural understanding and exchanges with China.
“I encourage and help anyone who wants to make connections with China,” said Holden. “China is the biggest market in the world. Both China and the U.S. have agricultural interests. We are both exploring future energy technologies and production: wind, solar, bio-mass.
“Beyond trade concerns, there are great arts and cultural interests in both nations,” said Holden. “People might be surprised to learn there’s great compatibility in family life in China and family life here in Missouri. We have mutual interests.”
Not So Hot On Hub
“I voted against it in the regular session and will do so again in the special session,” said Jim Lembke, R-Lemay. “I don’t think government should be in the business of deciding who will be winners and who will be losers in business – and that’s what this amounts to.
“I am in favor of anything that makes us take a closer look at our entire tax credits system in the state and who we are rewarding with it,” added Lembke. “It is really in need of examination and reform.”
Lembke said he did expect that Aerotropolis will pass in September’s special session. Jeanne Kirkton, D-Webster Groves, said she, like Lembke, is leaning toward a no vote on Aerotropolis.
“If this is such a great idea, why isn’t the free market taking care of it?” asked Kirkton. “This will be a big boondoggle if China doesn’t come along. It seems strange to me that we are jumping to play nice with the communists and will just look the other way at their history of human rights violations.
“At a time when we are cutting
MoDot, mental health, education, higher education, seniors and health care in this state – we are going to find tax credit money to help China land cargo?” asked Kirkton. “I think we have obligations that we are not meeting in this state, so why would we build warehouses for China?
“I have a lot of questions about it,” said Kirkton. “But I do admire the amount of work that Sen Schmitt has put into this idea.”
Rep. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, said he is a supporter of Aerotropolis because it will bring jobs, and jobs will bring tax revenue back to Missouri. He said the bill for the hub does need to be debated and refined.
“I would like to see us produce an economic package that does not take tax credits away from the needy and seniors who rent,” said Sifton. “I would like to see us come up with revenue elsewhere, but I am on record supporting Aerotropolis.
“Aerotroplis is a great opportunity for St. Louis and the Midwest,” said Sifton. “It’s not just about us taking goods from China and other countries overseas; it’s about us having access in St. Louis and Missouri to export our goods across the globe. That cannot be stressed enough.”