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Fatal Attraction: Politicians and ‘Eco-Devo’

1:30 PM, Jun 23, 2011 • By PATRICK ISHMAEL
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There is something about big, splashy economic development (“eco-devo”) projects that causes even the most conservative politicians to lose their heads. On the stump, they rail against corporate giveaways and crony capitalism. In town halls, they decry backroom deals, preferential treatment, and earmarks. In practice, though, they just cannot resist the urge to spend taxpayer money on new stadiums, shopping malls, and other civic boondoggles that will supposedly jump-start economic activity and lead to massive job creation.

Aerotropolis, St. Louis

So, welcome to Saint Louis! Could I interest you in some empty storage space — and a chance to get in on the ground floor in building an aerial super-highway linking China and the American Midwest?

Legislators in Missouri have given their support to an enormous tax credit bill that would subsidize the construction of $300 million worth of warehouses in and around Lambert–St. Louis International Airport. Another $60 million in tax breaks would go to freight forwarders for the transportation of international cargo. “It’s kind of a high-yield, job-producing incentive,” said Missouri state senator Eric Schmitt, a Republican and self-described conservative, as reported by the Associated Press. “It gives St. Louis a place in international trade that we don’t have.”

According to proponents, the creation of an “Aerotropolis” — a theoretical airport-centered city of the future — would create thousands of new jobs in and around the city’s airport. Never mind that there are already more than 18 million square feet of unused warehouse space around the airport. And never mind that it was only a dozen years ago that the city of Saint Louis splurged in building a third runway — at a cost of more than a billion dollars — that is virtually unused today. That was another eco-devo project that failed to deliver promised jobs and economic activity. It also led to the condemnation and destruction of more than 2,000 homes under eminent domain.

Michael Webber, a consultant with long experience in the international shipping industry, debunks almost all of the claims made for the Aerotropolis, saying that Saint Louis “has adequate on-airport capacity (existing facilities or unimproved land) to host adequate air cargo facilities to support the unlikely maximum of 8 projected weekly freighters,” the number expected to be facilitated by the legislation.

This may all just seem like a local issue, but it’s not. The Aerotropolis concept is now on the legislative menu for several other U.S. cities. Milwaukee is contemplating a play for an Aerotropolis of its own, based out of General Mitchell. Chicago is sinking $15 billion into O’Hare to maintain its Midwestern airport superiority. And Detroit is making a play for greater air traffic as well, with Wayne County executive Robert Ficano saying that the city is competing against Dubai for Aerotropolis-type traffic.

Really? Detroit is competing with Dubai?

Back in Missouri, Caleb Jones, the state representative sponsoring the bill in the House, goes so far as to suggest the possibility of flying cows to Asia as a selling point for the Aerotropolis legislation. “This bill will affect the entire state,” he told one reporter. “It’s going to create demand for all of Missouri and our products and goods. Folks from my district are going to be able to load up cattle and drive it to St. Louis and have it in China the next day.”

One must assume he meant sending beef rather than cattle. But even so, as policy analysts at the Show-Me Institute discovered, China prohibits the importation of beef from the United States.

Small details like that are of little concern, though, to lawmakers who are fixated on what they are pleased to call a “big idea.”

Patrick Ishmael is a policy analyst with the Show-Me Institute, an independent think tank promoting free-market solutions for Missouri public policy.

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