Friday, February 4, 2005

Airport authority fires back at site selection critics

Board names new officers

Express Staff Writer

A group of SkyWest Airlines passengers arrive at the Friedman Memorial Airport terminal Wednesday afternoon. SkyWest announced this week that starting in March it will increase the frequency of flights it operates between Hailey and Salt Lake City. (See related story) Photo by David N. Seelig

If a battlefield Army general had been running Tuesday night's meeting of the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority, the theme would've been--"counterattack !"

After months of being pelted by critics with insinuations that the authority is deceiving the community about the need for a new airport, the board voted to fight back.

To critics, the board sent the word: back up your claims with facts, not opinions. It was a softer version of "prove it or shut up."

The stiffened new stance came as the authority named new leaders in a series of rippling changes caused by the departure of chair Mary Ann Mix, who was abruptly unseated last week by the Blaine County Commission before the end of her term in June.

Elected new chair of the authority was Hailey City Councilwoman Martha Burke. Vice chair is Hailey Mayor Susan McBryant. New secretary is Blaine County Commissioner Tim Bowman, who defeated Mix in the Democratic Primary in May and was elected in the November general election.

Mix also indirectly came in for criticism by the County Commission in a letter handed to the authority by Bowman. The letter said that "through no fault of the authority, the (County Commission) has not been diligent in keeping up to date with actions of the authority in the recent past." As chair of both the County Commission and airport authority, Mix was responsible for briefing fellow county commissioners.

The letter also put to rest any question about the Hailey airport's future: Commissioners, it said, are "in full agreement that no major expansion of the existing facility should be pursued" to accommodate concerns of larger aircraft.

For the better part of an hour, authority members took off their gloves and expressed resentment of criticism they said emanates from "resort environment stakeholders"—a varnished euphemism for the Sun Valley Company and general manager Wally Huffman.

The crescendo of board feelings reached a peak temperature when authority attorney Barry Luboviski said he resented critics publicly saying during meetings of the citizens airport site selection committee that airport consultants are "full of (expletive)." Sun Valley Resort's Huffman at the last site meeting asked consultant Tom Schnetzer about his professional credentials, then said he questioned study methodologies that justify some proposed new airport sites.

The uproar Tuesday night began when Hailey airport manager Rick Baird asked the board for guidance on a handful of proposals designed to clear up blurred interpretations of why a new site is being studied.

In order to accomplish this, Baird proposed:

· writing a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration asking for a clear, no-nuanced statement on why a new airport is needed;

· asking Horizon and SkyWest airlines for clear statements on their attitudes about a new airport;

· meeting with Sun Valley Resort to resolve differences;

· responding to written questions from the Sun Valley/Ketchum Chamber and Visitors Bureau.

He also asked for advice on how to handle "adversarial" statements in site selection committee meetings.

Without naming who gave the order, Baird said he and the consultants had been instructed in effect to take nice-guy positions when faced with criticisms and turn the other cheek.

Consultant Chuck Sundby also told the board that consultants had answers they could've given during lively exchanges with critics, but "they skirted on policy issues" and were reluctant to express them.

Baird has consistently said the FAA considers Friedman unsafe as is for larger airline aircraft landing there now. Critics claim the FAA would waive its concerns if asked.

No more, the board told Baird firmly.

It told him to demand critics provide documentation of their assertions. The two most controversial allegations hanging over the site selection process is, first, that the FAA would waive any restrictions on Friedman Memorial Airport and allow it to continue operating and, second, that the airlines would stop serving the Wood River Valley if a new airport is built too far away from the valley.

Members also unanimously voted to obtain FAA's official position and meet with the airlines for unequivocal statements from their officers on a new airport.

But in a searing rebuke to Sun Valley Resort, the board voted not to meet with Huffman.

McBryant said she found such a suggested meeting "appalling" and accused "north county" representatives of being "domineering" in the site selection meetings. The site advisory committee has representatives from 25 interest groups, she said, and one should not be singled out for special conciliation meetings.

Luboviski said a separate meeting with Sun Valley Resort would involve "more haranguing." Authority member Ron Fairfax said a separate meeting "wouldn't go any better than a public meeting" during which Huffman, realtor Dick Fenton and former Ketchum City Councilman Maurice Charlat have criticized the site selection process and consultants.

Although he eventually voted with others to not meet with Huffman, authority member Len Harlig said the resort has a major impact on the community's economy, and if it has specific complaints they should be heard. But he complained, "We have to listen to things that aren't true," suggesting "we need a truth squad."

Burke retorted that large Hailey employers, such as Power Engineers and Marketron, also are important to the economy.

Before ending the discussion, Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau executive director Carol Waller, who was in the audience, asked the authority, "How could the consultants not meet with the valley's major employer?"

The authority seemed to accede, however, to one criticism—that the site selection process could be slowed down. Urged on by attorney Luboviski's suggestion that "if it takes three or four months longer, so be it," they agreed to extend studies if need be. However, Baird pointed out the FAA would not amend its grant of nearly $1 million for the study.

The authority hopes to have the list of possible sites narrowed to three by April.

In a separate interview Thursday, Huffman fired back, saying it was "ludicrous" for the authority or consultants not to meet with his company. "If they fail to do that, they fail to meet one of the basic criteria" of the site process.

"It doesn't have to be the (Sun Valley) company. It could be the Ketchum-Sun Valley Chamber," Huffman said.

He bristled at suggestions the resort is seeking special treatment.

"We were requested to be there" at site meetings "to give our point of view," he said. "If they don't allow that, why are we there?"

He added, "I suppose that means we're to never have an opinion that veers from conventional wisdom. Consultants should be expected to meet with all the major business interests to assess their input and gather as much information as possible. If they want to shut me down, that's unfortunate."

As for his questioning consultants' credentials, Huffman said bluntly:

"I haven't been convinced the consultants have been in this type of airport and this situation in their lives, and they may be trying to apply experience in different airports to this airport. Nothing wrong with raising questions about methodology."

He pointed out that the airport decision would have a major influence on the valley for the next 50 years.

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