Friday, December 10, 2004

Actor offers land for new airport

Acreage owned by Willis is near finalist site in Camas County

Express Staff Writer

Bruce Willis

Actor and part-time Hailey resident Bruce Willis offered Tuesday to donate land in Camas County for a new airport to replace Hailey's Friedman Memorial Airport.

The Willis acreage is east of the small town of Fairfield (pop. 400) alongside east-west U.S. Highway 20 in a largely flat agricultural area known as Camas Prairie and generally where candidate airport site No. 13 is under consideration by a citizens advisory site selection committee.

Not coincidentally, Willis also leases Forest Service land on Soldier Mountain north of Fairfield for a ski recreation area. A nearby airport could possibly be a major benefit to Soldier Mountain's activities.

The actor made his offer during an unannounced appearance at the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority's regular monthly meeting in the Old Blaine County Courthouse before a standing-room-only crowd organized to eliminate sites in the Bellevue Triangle from further consideration.

With a gray knit ski cap pulled tightly down on his head, and rising from a seat in the last row in the back of the room, Willis was recognized by authority chair Mary Ann Mix when he asked to speak.

"I'm Bruce Willis, part-time actor and father of three children," he said wryly and in his customary soft public voice. The audience turned almost in unison to look at Willis and chuckle at his self-introduction.

Depending on the outcome of studies and government approval of a final site, Willis said that if Site No. 13 is selected, "I'm prepared to donate whatever land is needed" to build a new airport.

Led by the five-member board's reaction, applause broke out after Willis' statement. Mix expressed appreciation for the offer.

Before sitting down, Willis added a humorous plug for himself, "I also have a film coming out . . ." then sat down as the room erupted into more laughter. (The January-release film is "Hostage," starring Willis as a police hostage negotiator who must save his oldest real-life daughter-turned-actress, Rumer, who's been kidnapped in the movie.)

Although he remained briefly to listen to members of the audience comment about possible sites, Willis slipped out of the room through a back door and down the courthouse stairs. Calls from the Mountain Express to Willis' office at Valley Entertainment for further information were not returned.

Willis' offer almost overshadowed the evening's other major development: the airport authority effectively eliminated consideration of controversial sites in the Bellevue Triangle, as well as several other sites once listed as possibilities.

The board instructed the airport staff and its consultants to instead focus attention on only a handful of sites: Nos. 8, 9 and 10 south of U.S. Highway 20 and east of state Highway 75 in the so-called Timmerman area, and No. 12 along Highway 20 inside Blaine County and No. 13 just inside Camas County on Highway 20.

According to Camas County Assessor Lynn McGuire, the Willis property that he apparently would donate totals 1,129.3 acres, with an average assessment of $142 per acre.

A Fairfield realtor, who asked that his name not be used, said the land probably would sell for $750 to $1,000 per acre, which means that if all the Willis land was donated for an airport, the airport authority would save $846,750 to $1,129,000 in land costs.

The present Friedman Memorial Airport is 220 acres. The proposed new airport would require an estimated 600 acres, but adding a second runway and facilities over time might require 1,000 acres or more.

Willis was responsible for sparking an economic renaissance in the Hailey area more than a decade ago when he and his then-wife, Demi Moore, invested heavily in downtown property, including remodeling an office building and revitalizing the old Liberty Theatre. They also have homes just north of the city. In addition, Willis invested in downtown Ketchum, but is believed to have disposed of those properties.

Airport authority attorney Barry Luboviski said after the Tuesday meeting that it's too early to discuss the Willis offer, since the site screening process has not been completed to determine which sites meet standards required by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Site No. 13 and the Willis land are roughly 45 minutes or less drive time on a good day from Ketchum. Drive time has been a major issue with Sun Valley Resort General Manager Wally Huffman, who said an airport too distant would discourage SkyWest and Horizon airlines from serving the Wood River Valley.

Horizon executives also have told the authority that its ground employees at Friedman don't want to live more than 45 minutes drive time from their jobs at a new airport.

However, those involved in studying sites often point to a Croy Canyon pass-through road that could be built to link Hailey and an airport, and thus shave drive time sharply.

One of the airport's consultants, Tom Schnetzer, of Mead & Hunt, said the narrowed down list of sites "made the most sense."

Before completing discussions on the site issue, there was another unsuccessful effort, this time by Blaine County Planning and Zoning Commissioner Larry Schoen, to reopen consideration of other sites much farther south, such as closer to Shoshone in Lincoln County. But his appeal was virtually ignored.

The board also went out of its way to reemphasize it would not vote to expand the present airport after advisory committee member Len Harlig expressed "frustration" that some people still believe the present airport should be expanded to comply with FAA standards and plans for a new facility abandoned.

When asked from the audience whether Friedman might be retained as a general aviation airport for small aircraft without FAA support, Mix said that 90 acres of Friedman purchased with FAA funds probably would have to be sold and proceeds used for a new airport or returned to the government.

Airport manager Rick Baird said selling off the 90 acres would chop some 2,000 feet of its single 6,952-foot runway. Retaining and operating Friedman without FAA financial support, Mix pointed out, would require local revenues. Hailey Mayor Susan McBryant, who's also an airport authority member, added that the city doesn't have any current source of funds operating the field.

If Friedman is closed, the 1931 deed conveying land to the city of Hailey by the Simon Friedman family specifies the property will revert to the Friedman family.

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