St. Clair Board Chairman Mark Kern on Wednesday said a County Board member's push for the dismissal of the director of MidAmerica St. Louis Airport is politically motivated, and the director has "worked tirelessly" to promote the airport.
Republican Nick Miller, of Lebanon, on Tuesday said Director Tim Cantwell should be dismissed because he has failed to keep the county-owned airport out of the red. County subsidies to the airport have caused the county to operate in the red for the past three years, according to county audits.
Kern, a Belleville Democrat, said in a statement that Miller is "obviously grandstanding for political purposes because he gets his marching orders from Springfield as a paid communications flack for the Illinois House Republican Caucus."
Kern said Cantwell is a retired Air Force colonel and commander at all levels, and is knowledgeable on all military matters and is well-versed in all aspects of airport management. Cantwell has led airport operations since 2002. He could not be reached for comment.
"Tim works tirelessly to not only promote MidAmerica Airport, but all of St. Clair County," Kern said. "These attributes are invaluable when working with Scott Air Force Base in a joint manner on a daily basis. Before Tim's tenure at MidAmerica, little commercial enterprise existed at the airport.
"Now we are home to Boeing, North Bay Produce, AVMATS, the State Police and the Army National Guard. We also have gained 3,600 acres of foreign trade zone status and we are an international port of entry. Also, Col. Cantwell has elevated MidAmerica's status to one of 13 primary airports from that of a reliever airport. This has translated in a yearly federal appropriation of $1 million."
Miller said Kern was diminishing the importance of the issue by attempting to deflect the discussion into a partisan fight.
"For him to imply that I get any sort of orders or direction from Springfield is just laughable," Miller said. "I don't get any sort of direction or orders at all. I do what I believe is right for the constituents of my district."
Miller said county officials should be discussing the best way to deal with the county's biggest financial drain and he has received "a lot of positive responses" since announcing he believes Cantwell should be dismissed.
"I'm not going to debate Tim's qualifications, resume or his accomplishments, I think the financial losses of MidAmerica speak for themselves. The amount we have to subsidize that airport each year because Tim can't bring in the business needed to get that airport to at least break even financially speaks for itself," Miller said.
County officials subsidized airport operations with about $5.6 million in county money last year. County money subsidized the airport to the tune of more than $28.7 million in the past five years.
Cantwell serves at the will of the Public Building Commission, which oversees the airport, according to Commissioner James Nations Sr.
Miller said he hopes the commission would consider dismissing Cantwell from the position. If Cantwell remains in the position, Miller said the board could remove his compensation from next year's budget beginning in January.
Nations said he would not criticize Miller for holding an opinion as an elected official, though he believes more issues affect county deficits than financial losses at the airport. For example, Nations said County Board members should be held responsible for tax revenues declining.
"It's a misnomer to expect every department of the county to be a profit-making entity," Nations said of expectations for the airport to turn a profit. "I don't see the Circuit Clerk's Office, Treasurer's Office or any other like the county jail expected to turn a profit. I think the News-Democrat has grasped this issue in an effort to promote discussion, and it's a worthwhile discussion.
"Ultimately, it will become a political decision -- do we proceed or back away from our effort to make MidAmerica a success? The County Board has the responsibility to make those decisions, the Public Building Commission doesn't really have the responsibility to make those decisions."
Nations said the Federal Aviation Administration recommended the construction of MidAmerica as a passenger hub relieving Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. When Lambert's traffic declined, Nations said MidAmerica shifted focus towards leisure-related passenger service and international cargo in an effort to make lemonade out of lemons.
"Mr. Cantwell has been the tip of the spear in that effort, working with most foreign markets," Nations said. "They operate on very cautious, step-wise, decision process. It has taken much longer than I would have ever expected it would have taken but I still think the airport has the potential to become a shining star in employment prospects in St. Clair County and we will ultimately see it become a benefit to the region."
"I'm not known for my patience but I do have patience in this regard," he added.
Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at email@example.com or 618-239-2501.