Local Media Fail St. Louis with Aerotropolis Reporting

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Much has been written recently in the St. Louis press about aerotropoli, or airport cities. I recently had an opportunity to talk to Greg Lindsay, co-author of the excellent “Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next”, about St. Louis and its quest for a China cargo hub, but also about global aviation developments, China, and the aerotropolis concept in general.

Our little 140 character dialogues on Twitter were picked up last week by opponents of the cargo hub idea and Lindsay was subsequently interviewed by the St. Louis Business Journal, KTRS radio and David Nicklaus of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. (They had likely never heard of Greg Lindsay before our Twitter conversation introduced St. Louis to Greg.)

I asked Lindsay what he thought of the KTRS interview and he stated he was a little surprised by the tone. He had thought the conversation would be more “fair and balanced”. Greg stated that he hadn’t wanted to get involved in local politics but instead wished to talk about the aerotropolis concept and his thoughts about the St. Louis effort.

Then Sunday Lindsay was featured in David Nicklaus’ column in the Post-Dispatch. It seems Nicklaus has yet to discover Google. If he had, he would have known that Greg Lindsay is not “the guy that coined the phrase Aerotropolis.” It’s not even certain where the phrase came from. Some saw it first in an article by Rem Koolhaas, the Dutch architect. John D. Kasarda, the professor from the University of North Carolina, heard it first in China. What we do know is that it was John Kasarda who popularized the term and the concept, not Lindsay, who co-authored the aerotropolis book with Kasarda.

The title of Nicklaus’ column is: “Aerotropolis expert says St. Louis will never be one”. I‘ve been involved with aviation for over two decades but I have no idea what this throwaway line means.

Think about it: The aerotropolis in short is a concept of economic activity planned around an airport instead of around the core of a city. There are really no purposely-built aerotropoli in the United States, simply because our airports and the environment around them were not planned as aerotropoli. The closest thing to an aerotropolis in the US may be Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW). Even that airport was not specifically designed as such, but has somewhat evolved as one.

{Dallas –Fort Worth (DFW) – arguably the closest example of an aerotropolis in the United States}

Thirty years ago in Europe they started planning airports as “Airport Cities”, as they call them there; long before Kasarda or Lindsay spoke or wrote about the concept. Arguably the mother of all airport cities (“aerotropoli” in Kasarda lingo) is Amsterdam-Schiphol Airport (image right), an airport I am very familiar with. I was born there, lived and worked there while Amsterdam was building their Airport City and even studied inside the “aerotropolis” at the National Aviation College. Kasarda and Lindsay actually devoted a whole chapter in their book to the Amsterdam Airport as an example of a purposely-built aerotropolis.

Nicklaus went on: “Since the St. Louis folks co-opted his title [Aerotropolis], they ought to be interested in Lindsay's opinion.” Why? Just because he co-authored a book about a new – depending on who you talk to – concept we have to consult him? That makes no sense. And if we really had to consult someone it should be Kasarda first.

Other than “Aerotropolis”, Lindsay is the editor of Access Now, a FedEx publication, writes for Fast Company, grew up in the Chicago area and is a Cubs fan. He lives in Brooklyn, NY. In my conversation with him he readily admitted he is not intimately familiar with the St. Louis situation. He asked most of the questions. Greg was very interested in the St. Louis effort and asked to be kept informed about further developments. Lindsay also shared that his book has sold very poorly in the St. Louis region. When I later made a bet on Twitter that most proponents of the China hub had probably read it and most opponents had not, he agreed.

Is he skeptical of our chances to succeed? Yes, he is. One thing we both agreed on is that $360 million dollars over 15 years might not be enough to make it a truly game-changing proposition. And let’s face it, it is peanuts. Chicago will spend $15 Billion on O’Hare; Miami is spending $7 Billion. Even Indianapolis, an airport with 70% of the passenger traffic of Lambert just spent $1 Billion on their new terminal. Many airports around the nation are making similar efforts. And these are not incentives, they are pure investments. Even with the Aerotropolis tax credits we’re still doing much less than many cities nation- and worldwide that understand the importance of being globally connected.

When I landed at Lambert for the first time, arriving from Amsterdam, connecting at O’Hare, it felt like I was cast back to the seventies. That was 12 years ago. Our airport is outdated and has been neglected for decades. The $70 million “Airport Experience” program is nice but pays for really nothing more than cosmetic upgrades.

People ask me about “the new runway” and its $1 billion price tag. Despite the terrible timing, this new runway is one of the best things to ever happen to Lambert from an operational perspective. As an airline pilot who was formerly based at Lambert I am pretty familiar with the situation. Lambert can easily be considered one of the safest and most efficient airports in the nation with plenty of room to grow. Yes, much more efficient and safe than O’Hare. We can either capitalize on our strengths or keep whining about the past and let it sit under-used.

{Flights from STL to Shanghai (PVG): Direct access to one of the largest markets in the world}

In the Nicklaus column Lindsay is quoted as saying: "Chinese carriers will come until the subsidies run out, then they look again at their balance sheets and pull out.” This is not at all how the tax credits will work. The Chinese are not receiving any subsidies. They are willing to come to St. Louis on their own dime. What they want from us is an investment in warehouses to accommodate freight forwarders and logistics companies in order to build the critical mass needed to establish a network around the hub. Freight forwarders don’t like to build their own warehouses. The strategy is to encourage the building of state-of-the-art facilities and give a tax credit on goods exported from Lambert.

Some opponents have (literally) driven around the airport, taking pictures to “show” us that there is a huge amount of warehouse space already available. The facts: warehouse vacancy in the St. Louis region is 8.9%. The national average is 11%. Further, much of the warehouse space available near Lambert is obsolete and not suitable for use as cold-chain facilities.

Back to the Nicklaus column. Lindsay:"I think they could lure the Chinese, but the history of airlines and subsidies indicates that they can leave the moment the subsidies run out.”

The incentives program will run for 15 years. If the effort is not successful the Chinese will leave long before the program sunsets. I’ve said this over and over, the tax credits will be only be used when the program is successful and enough economic activity is conducted. If this is not the case, there will be no incentives. Why is this concept so hard to grasp?

Finally, Nicklaus’ points out the ridiculousness of sourcing Lindsay in his own column:

“If they'd continued to simply call it a China hub, perhaps no one would have cared about Greg Lindsay's opinion. But they didn't, and now the Aerotropolis guru says their plan won't fly.”

So because they called the bill “Aerotropolis”, we now have to care about what “Lindsay the guru” says? This is a ridiculous statement. And if Nicklaus was so interested in Lindsay’s opinion why didn’t he call him in March, when his book was released?

{Memphis has no qualms about billing itself as “America’s Aerotropolis”. Do we need permission?}

Memphis calls itself “America’s Aerotropolis” although it was never planned as one and it didn’t evolve as one. It’s a cargo hub. Yet almost half of all jobs in Memphis are related to FedEx and the airport. What is more important?

It’s funny how the St. Louis media are aping each other. One outlet finds out about Lindsay via our Twitter exchange, of all places. Then they all jump on the bandwagon and a short-lived, two-day love affair is born. No real questions asked.

I wonder what will happen if the aerotropolis credits don’t pass, the Chinese decide to go to Cincinnati and build their hub there, with incentives of course. How would our media corps respond to that? Which “expert” would they embrace next?

For the record: I highly respect Greg Lindsay as a writer and his expertise on Aerotropoli and would definitely recommend his book. It’s an eye-opener. Read it (Wall Street Journal review). I think even he was surprised by the vitriol from the St. Louis media. The day after the interviews he tweeted:

 “I wish they'd (St. Louis Media) roped me into it. Instead, I grew impatient and stuck my
nose in somebody else's business.”

Nicklaus and company get paid to do their job. At nextSTL we do this for free. Maybe someone will buy me a beer some day. 

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  • RobbyD

    The response from the media has been really troubling given the deep concensus that St. Louis’ economy is and has been failing in the big picture and is in need of a serious booster shot…When one possible part of the solution for the future does present itself, the overall thrust in teh public space seems to be continued expectation of failure…Even talking to some local business owners downtown, the focus or paradigm is on excuses, problems and (what I feel are) red herring obstacles rather than solutions and opportunites…I understand the need to be realistic and the “show me” attitude…I like that atttitude…But that is different from self defeating pessimism…Ideas to make money MUST be credible and within realistic reach despite the business gamble, but the attitude of those executing the ideas is VERY important…Our version of free market capitalism requries faith and trust in the future adn each other…Nothing ensures failure faster than words and attitudes that undermine the seeds of faith by the marketplace…
    blah…I just keep returning the soaring optimism that landed Atlanta, Georgia the Centennial Olympic Games…Go back in history over 20 years and wrap your mind around what teh prospects were for that bid process by Atlanta…St. Louis needs a dose of that kind of faith in itself in the public square to realize the real growth possible for our community…

  • I’m so glad that nextstl exists.  thanks, count

  • NicholasTylerMiller

    I don’t see the advantage of shipping long-haul cargo by air.  I majored in geography and one class I took was all about understanding the economic rationale for different modes of shipping.  Most of the stuff we get from China isn’t going to spoil and doesn’t fluctuate in demand much.  Further, planes are relatively small.  It makes much more sense to ship by water which is the cheapest, then by train – which is second cheapest, and then by truck for the very last portion.  Further, that whole system has been streamlined so that shipping containers can go from boat to train to truck with relative ease. With rising oil prices, few substitutes for oil as a base for jet fuel, and concerns about global warming, the whole aerotropolis economic concept seems well beyond its expiration date.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Air cargo shipping around the world has been growing at an incredible pace. You’re right to say that most everything can be shipped via… well, ship. But there are perishables and just-in-time deliveries that cannot. Airports are a city’s connection to the world. While St. Louis may not need hundreds of flights from china each week, there is demand for dozens.

      • NicholasTylerMiller

        I understand there are instances where air cargo is useful, but still, the vast majority of cargo will not benefit from such treatment.  Further, where such treatment is preferable, why not fly it to the airport closest to the intended consumer market?  Without a huge portion of the nation’s air cargo coming through St. Louis, I fail to see this boosting St. Louis’s economy much.  St. Louis will need to become a large node of transshipment for it to have a real impact.  I will be happy to be proven wrong about this, though.

    • Frank DeGraaf

      Between 1975 and 2005 Global GDP rose 154%. World trade grew 355%. The value of air cargo grew 1,395%. Only 1% of the weight of the world’s traded goods travels by air, but this 1% represents 35% of the total value of all trade. Further, the total global commercial aviation’s carbon footprint (read:oil consumption) is 3% and is falling, because of more efficient engines. Housing and cars produce a carbon footprint of more than 40%. 


    Frank, thanks for the great article.  It is sad and unfortunate that many “journalists” these days do not research and/or go by facts when reporting.

    I really think one of you guys needs to go on Donnybrook.  Maybe Bill McClellan will buy you a beer…

    • Frank DeGraaf

      I would love to drink a beer or two with Bill McClellan.

    • Alex Ihnen

      working on it…don’t know if we’ll be heard however – perhaps a write-in campaign from nextSTL readers would help!

  • Catching

    The truth of the matter is that St. Louis is in no better of a position than any other Midwestern city.

    If the people here wish to try, then make it a noble and respectable effort. Just remember that we aren’t sitting above anywhere else.

    • Adam

      how many other Midwestern cities, with the exception of Chicago, are landing Chinese cargo flights starting in September?

  • rawest1

    I am old enough, and I’d be more than happy to buy you a beer if I ever see you out, and I knew what you look like.  Please keep fighting the good fight, sir.

  • Daniel Doelling

    I’d buy you a beer, but I’m not old enough. 

    Great job clarifying this ordeal. 

    I’m lost for words for how simple you’ve made this. I’m lost for words for how complex others have made it.