MASCOUTAH — Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn grabbed a pair of oversized, gold-plated scissors, and then waited as North Bay Produce President Mark Giardin lined up with him, along with a squad of grinning St. Clair County politicians.
Smiling into the cameras, Quinn did a quick countdown: "One. Two. Three!"
With a snip of the scisssors, the green tape in front of Quinn sprang apart. At the same instant, a plastic screen behind the group shot upward, revealing a cavernous refrigeration chamber capable of freezing 120 tons of blueberries within a few hours.
The crowd gathered in the cargo bay of North Bay's new $5.7 million, 37,000 square-foot warehouse erupted into cheers, signalling St. Clair County's official welcome to MidAmerica St. Louis Airport's newest tenant.
As part of the deal, the county will provide refrigeration units already on hand, plus an upfront cash investment of $2.15 million. In return, the county takes ownership of the warehouse after 15 years.
During remarks before the ribbon-cutting, Giardin lauded St. Clair County's support for a state-of-the-art refrigerated warehouse that will serve as a conduit for berries and other fruit grown and shipped from all across North America and South America.
"Governor, you have a cold treatment facility that you can brag about that no one else has," Giardin told Quinn and audience of more than 200 onlookers.
Giardin concluded his remarks by handing over to St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern and airport director Tim Cantwell a mock-up of a check for $500,000 payable to the county -- a sum that will cover the company's lease more for more than two years.
The warehouse will by this fall employ up to 80 people and will serve as a conduit for apples, asparagus, peas and other produce grown and flown in from across the Western Hemisphere. Some of that fruit will, within the next two years, be bound for burgeoning markets in China, Giardin predicted.
North Bay, of Traverse City, Mich., built the warehouse to boost its role in the international food market.
The warehouse's location in Illinois means it will be able to move product to customers' shopping carts across the Americas three to five days earlier than would have been possible before the warehouse, Giardin said.
"Which will improve the quality that consumers receive," he said.
A large portion of the food items North Bay will handle at the airport will be flown in, Kern said, "and we look forward to hosting their worldwide air activity and supporting their operations here as they grow their company."
The North Bay warehouse's opening just seven months after construction began represents a welcome piece of good news for Kern, Cantwell and Richard Sauget, Sr., the chairman of the county Public Building Commission, which oversees the struggling $313 million airport.
The three leaders have had to fend off criticism because of the fact the airport has lost money every year since it opened in 1998, with total losses -- including depreciation and bond interest payments -- approaching $150 million. Meanwhile, the airport's passenger terminal has remained empty since the last passenger service ended in 2008.
But the opening of the North Bay warehouse represents a tremendous opportunity to move forward, Sauget said.
"People will understand and see that we are for real here and that we have companies that are interested in being part of our infrastructure," he said.
Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at email@example.com or 239-2533.