Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Sun Valley Council: Keep airport nearby

City leaders told status quo will not work over long term

Express Staff Writer

Friedman Memorial Airport was busy Monday afternoon as flights carried numerous travelers to and from the Wood River Valley. Photo by Willy Cook

Keep the Wood River Valley's airport as close as possible to the region's tourism hub in Ketchum and Sun Valley.

That was the message put forth Thursday, March 17, as the Sun Valley City Council discussed what stance it will take in the ongoing debate over when and where Friedman Memorial Airport should be relocated.

Mayor Jon Thorson said he is "vitally concerned about the economic viability" of Sun Valley Resort and other businesses in the northern Wood River Valley, which could suffer if a new, more-distant airport discourages tourist-related travel.

Councilman Lud Renick said he would prefer to see the airport kept in its current location in Hailey, but fears Hailey citizens and government officials are leading an irreversible campaign to move the facility south.

"I think the whole argument is really being driven by Hailey," Renick said. "They've got to realize that the airport is vital not only to Hailey, but also to Sun Valley and Ketchum."

The discussion Thursday was called for by Thorson, who is preparing to send a letter to the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority to present Sun Valley's position in the airport-relocation debate.

The authority and a special committee it has convened are currently reviewing sites for relocating the airport, pursuant to complaints from the Federal Aviation Administration that Friedman is not properly configured to accept the types of larger, Class C-3 aircraft that it does. The FAA has ordered that Friedman be expanded and reconfigured or be replaced by a new airport that complies with its standards for larger planes.

The authority will ultimately recommend to the FAA a site for locating a new airport in the greater Blaine County region.

Thorson last week issued a memo to council members outlining his concerns that a new airport might be located so far from Sun Valley it would be inconvenient for travelers, causing declines in tourism and air service. The mayor suggested it would be in Sun Valley's best interest to keep a new airport close enough that it could be driven to in 40 minutes or less.

However, Len Harlig, a member of the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority, told Thorson and the council that locating a new airport within 40 minutes of central Sun Valley is not a likely scenario.

Building an airport within 40 minutes of Sun Valley would entail choosing a site in the Bellevue Triangle—south of Bellevue—an area that has already been eliminated from consideration, Harlig said.

"It has all the same problems of weather that Hailey has."

Among three broad areas now being considered, Harlig said, the closest to Sun Valley—Site 9, located south of the Blaine County-Lincoln County line—is nearly one hour away.

"I would like to see the airport as close to the existing airport as possible, for the same reasons you would," Harlig told the council. "But it has to work."

Thorson questioned whether moving the airport would come with significant costs, both direct and indirect.

"I'm concerned about the economic well-being of our community," he said.

"It's a legitimate concern," Harlig replied, but suggested that opinions differ on how distant a regional airport would have to be to negatively impact Sun Valley Resort.

The inadequacies of Friedman are driving the plan to relocate the airport, Harlig said, not the city of Hailey. Friedman was built in the 1930s, he said, without a vision for it becoming a modern, full-service commercial airport.

Two Sun Valley citizens asked the council to urge the authority to keep Friedman in operation over the long term.

"There's nothing wrong with that airport," said Ross Jennings. "And you can tweak it."

"I think this is a slow-motion train wreck," said Bob Gilbert. "A viable, close-in airport is essential, I think, for the economy of the Wood River Valley."

Harlig assured the council and the public that a decision on whether to relocate the airport has not been reached and will only occur after considerable research and deliberation. Numerous scenarios are still possible, he said.

"If this was easy, we would have done it already."

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