Local Media Fail St. Louis with Aerotropolis Reporting

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.