Wednesday, March 4, 2009

We all have stake in the airport


I read Hailey City Councilman Fritz Haemmerle's attack on Sun Valley Mayor Wayne Willich in these pages with interest. After all, I was at the airport Blue Ribbon Commission meeting in question. Mr. Haemmerle was not. Civics lesson?

Mayor Willich did not say that the north county should have a disproportionate vote on the location of our airport, nor did he say that it should remain at its current location in Hailey. What he did say is that whatever location the citizens select should have a solid business and financing plan before we proceed. The existing economic plan is out of date, has overly hopeful assumptions and does not take into account the new economic realities we all face. He did say that all options should be evaluated, since this decision will have such a large impact on our visitor-based economy and our taxpayers. Mr. Willich spent three decades as a senior executive at Boeing, so he has relevant experience on airports. He also said the folks in the north part of the county should have a say in it too (the Ketchum and Sun Valley representatives in the prior site-selection process did not think their input was fairly and thoroughly considered).

Radical stuff? Hardly. So I guess it is more fun to rail on with emotional demagoguery on Sun Valley's threats to the "one-person, one-vote" principle our democracy is based on. Or to drum up righteous fervor over the callous "rich guy's" disregard for safety (Mayor Willich said nothing of the kind, and in any case the original 1994 decision to move the airport by the Hailey/Blaine County board was not based on FAA safety concerns).

Like it or not, our entire valley's economy depends on recreational visitors and the second-home real estate and construction businesses driven by that. Sustain Blaine's consultants, TIP Strategies, estimated 65 percent. If you don't believe it, just look over the hills to our east to the equally beautiful Big Lost Valley and ask yourself about the economy of Mackay and Arco, where the county tax base is one-fifteenth of what we enjoy. Or notice that Blaine County has 10 percent of the tax base of all of Idaho with little more than one percent of its people. Economics are not everything, of course, but they do provide for the quality schools, employment, public services and other amenities we all enjoy. Hailey and the south valley's economy are not insulated from the visitor economy, so there is no "Mayor Willich" economy versus the south county, as Mr. Haemmerle suggests.

None of this says that the airport should stay as it is. It just suggests that we all have a stake in making these decisions with utmost care and attention to economic, environmental, safety and social impacts. In these difficult times we need to come together and make good decisions that join us as neighbors rather than separate us. There's a civic lesson that makes sense.

Charles Conn is a City Council member from Ketchum. The views in this guest opinion are his own.

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