Friday, June 19, 2009

Economics, process remain issue for airport selection

Sun Valley, Ketchum councils express frustration to FAA


By JON DUVAL
Express Staff Writer

Sun Valley Mayor Wayne Willich, right, asks consultant Mark Perryman, of the firm Landrum & Brown, about the financial impacts of replacing Friedman Memorial Airport. Photo by David N. Seelig

Members of the Ketchum and Sun Valley city councils challenged the Federal Aviation Administration over different aspects of the process to find a suitable replacement for Friedman Memorial Airport.

At a joint meeting Thursday in Sun Valley Resort's Limelight Room, elected officials and members of the public raised questions about the economic analysis to be used in the site selection process, the future of Hailey's airport and potential repercussions on air service.

The meeting was attended by about 100 people.

Noting that 60 to 75 percent of Blaine County's economy is driven by tourism, Ketchum Councilman Charles Conn, who has become an outspoken participant in the airport discussion, said that regardless of which site is chosen, a thorough financial analysis must be completed before a switch is made.

Conn said that preliminary analysis he has done indicates that small changes in the assumptions in both costs and revenue could mean a significant impact to taxpayers.

"The world doesn't usually end up as happy as you think it will," he said.

Conn said that an economic-impact study completed in 2006 does not take into account the current economic circumstances, nor does it incorporate enough variables to measure different possible outcomes.

Although Conn has become increasingly active in the airport discussion, it is unclear if he will continue to be. He has said he will not run for re-election this fall when his council term expires.

Mark Perryman, president of the Cincinnati-based consulting firm Landrum & Brown, which was contracted by the FAA to conduct the Environmental Impact Statement analysis for a new airport, responded to Conn by saying that the FAA would do a complete cost-benefit analysis after completing the EIS and site-selection process. This analysis would determine if the federal government, through the FAA, would contribute millions of dollars to the construction of a new airport.

Although this analysis would determine the feasibility of a new airport from an operational perspective, Conn and his fellow city officials expressed a much greater concern as to what the impact would be on the local economy, what Perryman called the "business plan."

"We better get our own pencils out and start doing our own analysis," Sun Valley Mayor Wayne Willich said.

Several comments addressed what some interested parties see as a lack of inclusion of Sun Valley and Ketchum stakeholders in the site-selection process and ongoing discussions. The Blaine County Commission and the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority have, for the most part, been leading the process.

Representatives from Horizon and SkyWest airlines also chimed in. Dan Russo, vice president of marketing for Horizon, said the value of an airport would decrease the farther it moved from the destination resort. Russo said that with increased distance from the airport to Sun Valley, there would be more "leakage" to Boise. That term refers to passengers who choose to drive the additional distance to take advantage of cheaper fares and greater airline selection in Boise.

"We would prefer to exhaust all possible solutions to keep Friedman before moving the airport," Russo said.

However, the FAA has determined that Friedman's size and configuration does not comply with federal regulations, and significant changes would be required to continue commercial operations as they presently exist. On Thursday, Perryman said the geography surrounding Friedman means that the reliability of air service there could never improve enough to warrant a significant expenditure of federal funds on upgrades.

Jim Perkins, president of the Blaine County Pilots Association, asked whether Friedman could continue to operate solely for general aviation, given that this constitutes a large proportion of the airport's traffic. But Perryman said that the sale of the Friedman property would be an integral part of financing a replacement facility.

Sun Valley City Councilwoman Joan Lamb asked if local investors would be able to purchase the land in order to keep it as a private airport. This question went unanswered.

Jon Duval: jduval@mtexpress.com




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