Will an economic development package touted as benefiting all of Missouri get off the ground when state legislators gather next Tuesday for a special session?

Will an economic development package touted as benefiting all of Missouri get off the ground when state legislators gather next Tuesday for a special session?

Probably, but opposition has been popping up.

Local development officials have added their voices to those around the state saying the plan is good for Missouri and is needed, though several legislators gathered last week to discuss job creation were reluctant to commit to a 300-page bill they haven’t seen yet.

Here’s one Republican, Rep. Mike Cierpiot of Lee’s Summit: “I’ve got a lot of questions about it, and I want to get answers.”

And here’s a Democrat, Rep. Ira Anders of Independence: “Parts of it are going to be great for the state of Missouri. Part of it I have reservations about.”

The General Assembly failed to get this dealt with in its regular session, which ended in mid-May, but legislative leaders kept talking. Gov. Jay Nixon made it clear he wasn’t eager to call a special session just to debate and wait. He wanted something concrete basically worked out. Then late last month Nixon and legislative leaders announced a deal, and he called a special session that could last close to two weeks.


Something for everyone?

The “Made in Missouri Jobs Package” has several components:

• “Compete Missouri,” which would consolidate the state’s six business development incentives and three job-training programs and allow the state – modestly, at least – to provide upfront funding for major projects. The common complaint is that incentives in Kansas are helping that state lure away Missouri-side companies and jobs here in greater Kansas City.

• The Science and Innovation Reinvestment Act, which would capture some money from new science-related companies to give the state a fund to push for more of the same. That way, it comes at no cost to existing state revenues. Business interests have pushed MoSIRA in the legislature for years, without success. It is seen as a way to spur growth in a sector of the economy showing bright promise for the region.

Again, Kansas has similar incentives. “So MoSIRA essentially would give Missouri the same type of tool,” said Jim Heeter, president and CEO of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.

• Incentives for data centers like those used by hospitals, banks and governments. It’s seen as a growth industry, and advocates say Missouri’s advantages – plentiful, relatively cheap electricity and plenty of I.T. workers – mean it should get its share of the field.

• And then the big piece – the “aerotropolis” bill, a $360 million plan to turn lots of unused space and capacity at and near Lambert Field in St. Louis into a hub for China-to-Missouri air shipments.

“That’s a big sucking sound on that side of the state, and frankly that side of the state will benefit more,” said Bill Brown, principal of the economic development consulting firm Spectrum Consulting Group and a board member of the Lee’s Summit Economic Development Council.

Others argue the benefits to St. Louis will flow to the entire state, and concede that the eastern side of the state coming out ahead legislatively is just political reality.

“Right now, we don’t have a lot of clout over there from this side of the state,” Cierpiot said. “St. Louis has a pretty big stick.”

‘Aerotropolis’ debate

The aerotropolis plan has its critics. State Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, has blasted the plan, and one senator alone often can gum up the works at the Capitol.

And an air cargo consultant, Michael Webber in Prairie Village, has written critically of the idea too. He says the deal is more about political connections than hard business math.

“If I had to handicap the race, I would put the chance of success (for the Aerotropolis project) at somewhat less than 1 percent,” he said.

Webber said the nation’s four largest air hubs – LAX, Miami, O’Hare in Chicago, JFK in New York, all airports he says he has consulted for – combined have less than half of the space to be built in St. Louis. And this, he said, comes after significant consolidation in the industry. There has never been more excess air cargo capacity that there is today, he said.

Aerotropolis advocates counter that China is about to massively increase the amount of its air freight that goes on its own planes, basically creating a new FedEx or UPS from scratch, and that St. Louis needs to be the place for that trade flowing to 12 or 15 states in the middle of the country.

“We’re on the cusp of the Chinese making that long-term decision,” said Dick Fleming, president and CEO of the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association. He spoke Tuesday during a Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry conference call to promote the “Made in Missouri” package. Others on the call said aerotropolis would have a $17 billion impact on the state over 15 years and create thousands of jobs.

Hugh McVey, president of the Missouri AFL/CIO, put it this way: “That’s exactly the kind of strategic investment we need to make in this state.”

So will this plan fly?

Still, Webber said there’s “not one piece of independent feasibility study” to support the plan. It’s worth noting, he said, that criticism of the plan is coming from both the left – groups such as Show-Me Progress – and the right – groups such as the Show-Me Institute. “They know a bad deal with they see one,” Webber said.

At the very least, he suggested, legislators need to do what their counterparts in other states have done: Demand a full feasibility study, not just an economic-impact study. Instead, he said, the deal is being driven by politically connected players.

“They are,” he said, “the worst examples of what’s wrong with politics.”

Other issues could cloud the “Made in Missouri” plan, too, such as a bill for local control of the St. Louis Police Department.

Dan Mehan, president and CEO of the Missouri Chamber acknowledged the criticism and the challenge of getting the plan through the General Assembly. “There are a lot of moving parts to this,” he said.

Still, he and others said the state needs to be more competitive with its neighbors.

“If you want to compete in the way that we know we have to,” Mehan said, “you’re going to have to be bold about it.”