Metropolitan Airports Commission officials say flooding in recent years has cost the corporate clients who use the airport millions of dollars. The MAC has been working with city officials over the past four years to reach agreement on how and where to build flood protection.
Environmental and neighborhood groups and several St. Paul City Council members have opposed the MAC's efforts all along, largely over concerns about a floodwall's environmental and aesthetic impact on the Mississippi River.
Mayor Chris Coleman supported the flood wall when he was a City Council member. But now he says the MAC has to meet certain conditions before he can support the current proposal. He says the biggest sticking point is the appearance of a nine foot high sheet metal floodwall running more than 5,000 feet along the river's edge.
"I cannot support this proposal in its current form," Coleman says. "We cannot allow the MAC to put lipstick on a 'sheet-metal pig' and call it a compromise."
Coleman also wants the MAC to address aircraft noise and water quality concerns.
Even though the MAC's $42 million plan doesn't require a penny of city money, the city council has an even longer list of complaints than the mayor.
During the Council meeting Wednesday, Council President Kathy Lantry spent more than 45 minutes reading out loud a 21-page litany of objections.
Lantry and city officials say the MAC plan clashes with the city's priorities for the river. Mayor Coleman says over the past two decades, the city has spent nearly a billion dollars developing the riverfront for museums, parks, and housing.
The council voted to reject the MAC proposal on a 4-to-3 vote, thereby killing the plan in its current form.
Council member Pat Harris cast one of the three votes in favor of the proposal. Harris and others argue that the St. Paul airport is a vital piece of regional economic infrastructure that should not be subject to flooding and closure.
"This issue is about jobs," Harris says. "It's about the vitality and marketability of St. Paul. That airport's going to continue to operate, but whether people decide to invest in our community based on chance and based on uncertainty. You know, I don't think you get investment in a community when there's an uncertainty issue."
MAC officials say the St. Paul airport provides jobs for 850 people and pumps $112 million a year into the local economy.
But, floodwall opponents, including environmental and neighborhood activists, are calling the council's decision a victory. Former city council member Tom Dimond helped lead the opposition.
"It's always challenging when you're working against a power that has so much money and influence, that it would be successful," Dimond says. "But it was a community united, many organizations and neighborhood and river organizations united to work on this effort."
With opposition from Dimond and others mounting in recent weeks, the City Council's decision was not a surprise. Still, the MAC's Deputy Executive Director Nigel Finney says he's not sure how the airports commission will proceed.
"There are a whole host of new issues that have been raised," Finney says, "and how those fit into the overall discussion, how those fit into the discussions we've had previously, I really don't know at this point, it's really too early to tell."
Finney says he thinks the MAC will present the city with a revised proposal. He says the commission plans to vote next week on a resolution addressing Mayor Coleman's concerns. But he says he's not sure how the commission will address the 21 pages of objections presented at the City Council.