Concerns about Lambert airport, school transfers among issues discussedBy Brett Blume

ST. LOUIS (KMOX) –  As St. Louis gets ready to turn 250 years old in 2014 there’s reason for a lot of pride and optimism, tinged by some concern and regret.

That was the running theme of comments made by four top regional leaders during Thursday morning’s “State of St. Louis” preview hosted by the St. Louis Business Journal.

Officials like mayor Francis Slay did not shy away from what they see as some of the major challenges that still face the city and the region as a whole.

For instance, Lambert St. Louis airport.

“We’re up to 252 flights to 60 direct destinations on a daily basis,” Slay noted. “But that’s not good enough. We have to try and improve our revenues, and we also need to work with airlines to see what we can do innovatively to get more flights to more destinations.”

Slay said it’s especially critical to increase the average number of passengers departing Lambert for Europe from the current 290 per day to 400.

But the mayor said there were plenty of things to be happy about heading into 2014, including a declining crime rate and a big boost in tourism with hotel bookings up 33% over the previous year.

Education, another major topic during the session, was top-of-mind for St. Charles County executive Steve Ehlmann who said he’s all for student transfers but doesn’t think having some kids riding a bus 2-3 hours every day is the answer.

But beyond the transfer issue, Ehlmann said the bottom line is that fixing local schools is directly tied to the entire region’s economy.

“When new employers come here they want to know if we have a trained workforce,” Ehlmann said. “And we can’t have a trained workforce if we have failing schools.”

After hearing from Slay, Ehlmann, St. Louis County executive Charlie Dooley and St. Clair County chairman Mark Kern, St. Louis Business Journal publisher and event moderator Ellen Sherberg noted that the large gathering of more than 500 business and civic leaders had been sitting on their hands throughout.

“I don’t want to be a bummer but I didn’t hear any big ideas,” Sherberg told her panelists. “I didn’t hear anything to get this crowd on its feet and that’s what they came to hear.”

Dooley responded, “People are going to begin to see things coming out of the ground (in 2014). Buildings being built and people for the first time are going to be hiring.”

“We know there’s no silver bullet,” chipped in St. Clair County’s Kern. “There’s no one exciting thing that’s going to turn on this group and make them say ‘Hey, I heard something today that I didn’t know about’. But I think there are a lot of things that are being done that are going to lead to that.”

Kern pointed to the controversial Mid-America Airport, telling the crowd there has been “a lot of growth” there with North Bay Produce doubling the size of their facility after just one year in business in Mascoutah.

“We recently had 250,000 pounds of blueberries shipped in internationally,” he added. “That’s a heck of a lot of blueberries!”


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