Friday, September 30, 2005

Bring wisdom to the airport question

The hearing on the future of Friedman Memorial Airport Wednesday night left a lot more people knowledgeable about issues involved in relocation.

What it did not do was answer questions about economic consequences of relocation—good or bad—that cling to the process.

Relocation and the questions it raises are troubled by a central contradiction: One person's dream is another's nightmare. That makes it easier to retreat into engineering than to answer economic, social and political questions.

For example, a part-time air-commuter resident from Seattle said convenience is the key factor for people who fly to the Wood River Valley. If an outlying airport is less convenient, he and his friends may go elsewhere. He predicted this exodus will reduce property values and eliminate jobs.

At the same time, many residents of areas near a proposed site outside Fairfield said a new airport will destroy the peace of life on the Camas Prairie and the wildlife they treasure. And so it went.

No one in the valley's business community advocated any expansion of the existing site that would require condemnation of nearby homes. Expansion of the existing site would be like stuffing a jigsaw puzzle piece into the wrong place. It might fit, but it wouldn't be pretty.

However, the business community has asked questions that deserve some well-considered study. Businesses fear the impacts—intended or not—of an outlying airport.

They want the Airport Authority to compare the economic effects of an outlying site to an expanded site in Hailey.

The authority claims that such forecasts would be meaningless because construction is 10 to 20 years away—too far away to see. They point to the difficulties of forecasting with airlines in bankruptcy and with competition so fierce that many airlines cannot plan more than a year in advance.

But to do nothing leaves the issue open to wild speculation and conjecture driven by fear—fear of failure, or success that could bring masses of new visitors and residents.

Tendrils of fear formed around the following questions snaked their way through the hearing all night:

· What will the drive time be when state Highway 75 is fully developed with all new stoplights in place and the population has grown?

· What kind of governing structure will keep Blaine County's interests the top priority if the airport is in another county?

· Will the existing airport close, or will it be sold off to a private airport operator?

· Would keeping the Hailey airport open for general aviation make it impossible for a new airport to survive financially?

· And what of seat subsidies? Where will they be found?

The hearing brought light to the process. It's now up to the authority to reduce the heat by moving forward with wisdom and with the welfare of the entire valley in mind.

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