Friday, December 10, 2004

Airport looms on Fairfield's horizon

Mayor sees 'incredible growth' in town's future

Express Staff Writer

"I won't vote for an airport until people (in Fairfield) are confident about the impact."

—David Hanks, Fairfield mayor

For motorists racing east and west along U.S. Highway 20, a tiny hamlet named Fairfield requires drivers to slow down briefly, or possibly make a pit stop.

But to the estimated 400 residents of Fairfield, which is the population center of remote Camas County, the hamlet's idyllic days may be numbered. It is a community whose future is torn between the vision of remaining comfortably small and distant from the boom of adjoining Blaine County or becoming a new economic boomlet in Southcentral Idaho.

In either case, Fairfield has awakened to the reality that an area east of the city along U.S. 20 in the Camas Prairie has become a prime candidate for a large new airport to replace Hailey's Friedman Memorial Airport.

The reasoning presented by some for picking the site--known as Site No. 13 among 16 original candidates examined by a site selection advisory committee--was sweetened Tuesday when actor Bruce Willis offered to donate whatever land is needed for a new airport.

Willis, who has major real estate investments as well as a home in Hailey, leases land from the U.S. Forest Service on 7,150-foot Soldier Mountain east of Fairfield for a ski recreation area.

Construction of an airport nearby would be an obvious benefit to Willis' ski operation, while ancillary commercial activities around an airport would create new wealth and employment for Camas County and, especially, Fairfield.

"But I won't vote for an airport until people (in Fairfield) are confident about the impact," said Fairfield Mayor David Hanks. However, he also is one of 50 members on the citizens airport site selection committee charged with screening candidate sites and recommending a few final preferred sites to the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority.

Hanks said Fairfield residents are in a "mixed mood" about the possibility of a large airport next door.

"There's an air of uncertainty," he told the Express. He also said Fairfield residents are "open minded" and are seeking more information.

He admitted that the city and county "aren't up to speed on planning" for the sort of growth that would come with an airport. A 120-home subdivision east of town is putting pressure on local government for services such as sewers.

Yet, Willis also seems committed to developing the Soldier Mountain ski operation into a flourishing and profitable enterprise, according to people interviewed by the Express.

Willis reportedly is working to develop regular bus service from the Wood River Valley to Soldier Mountain, whose ski pass prices are far below those of Bald Mountain. Soldier Mountain's adult season pass is only $350, while Sun Valley Resort's ski pass is $$1,850. It is scheduled to open Dec. 17.

The Idaho Department of Commerce also lists the Soldier Mountain ski operation as Fairfield's largest employer, with 25 workers.

Ann Frost, the Forest Service's snow ranger for the Fairfield District, said that the lease Willis acquired with the ski resort in 1996 from the previous owners, Don and Kristi Schiermeier, expires in 2008 but she believes he will renew it.

According to Forest Service reports, Soldier Mountain's best year was 1974, with 25,200 skier visits. Last season, there were 10,932 skier visits, she said, which shows an upward trend in activity from the past six years in which volume never reached 10,000.

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