St. Clair County Board members want greater control of MidAmerica Airport

News-DemocratJuly 19, 2013 

Some St. Clair County Board members say they should have been told about a planned business park on county-owned property near MidAmerica St. Louis Airport and the board should have more say in the airport's future.

Board member Frank Heiligenstein, a Freeburg Democrat, said the lack of communication regarding the business park is the latest example of a need for more oversight from the elected members of the county board.

"If we're going to be accountable and responsible, something has to change," Heiligenstein said.

"I can understand there are things you can't discuss in public because you don't want to tip off Lambert (St. Louis International) Airport people, but at the same time this involves dollars and cents and land. The full County Board has to know what's going on."

A survey of County Board members on Friday found members from both political parties were left in the dark on the potential project, which developers estimate could create 2,180 jobs.

The Public Building Commission, which oversees the airport, approved hiring a company for $15,000 to appraise 253 acres adjacent to the airport on Thursday. The land is south of Interstate 64 along Illinois 4 in Mascoutah.

The appraisal is the first step in the proposed sale of the property to Covenant Aerospace Inc., which plans to build a business park centered upon constructing cargo airplanes, according to documents provided to the News-Democrat by the Public Building Commission and additional details published on Covenant's website.

The owners of Covenant and County Board Chairman Mark Kern could not be reached for comment.

Mascoutah Mayor Gerald Daugherty said the site of the potential project is within the city's limits and would need approval from City Council members. Daugherty said city leaders welcome development near the airport.

City officials have been in contact with Covenant developers for some time regarding the project, according to City Manager Cody Hawkins, but the company has not yet sought any permits from the city.

Such a vast project should be approved by the County Board, Heiligenstein said. Fellow County Board member Ed Cockrell, a Republican from New Athens, agreed and said the responsibility for the airport's success should rest with the elected board members instead of the appointed members of the Public Building Commission.

"I just don't understand the lack of transparency here," Cockrell said. "I represent, and every County Board member represents, the taxpayers -- the Public Building Commission does not. If it's such a great idea, why isn't everybody crowing about it? You know why, because they would have to answer questions. That's the frustrating part, and when you do ask a question they lash out."

Cockrell, Republican County Board member Nick Miller of Lebanon and other County Board members attended a quarterly update on the airport given by MidAmerica Director Tim Cantwell on Tuesday. Miller previously said and Cockrell agreed on Friday that the project should have been presented to board members during Tuesday's meeting.

"I know deals can be really complicated of this nature and I understand the intricacies and minutia that has to be gone through, but understand we are a government entity," Cockrell said. "We own the airport. How can they pledge or obligate the sale of property without board approval?"

Heiligenstein said the board should be informed of the project to ensure developers are properly vetted.

"It'd be great to get a couple thousand more jobs out there," Heiligenstein said. "We need to do our due diligence and make sure the companies out there we are dealing with are reputable and carry through with what they promise to do."

Cockrell said the board has previously declined to sell property around the airport because the county could potentially be forced to pay back grants given by the federal government for the county to purchase the property.

Cockrell said he was concerned with the potential policy shift and a host of other issues.

"The sad part of it is I'm asking these questions and I don't intend for them to be rhetorical, but they end up that way," Cockrell said. "That's their attitude. You need to pass it and then we'll tell you all about it."

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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