Wednesday, October 12, 2011

‘Just say no’ won’t cut it

Airports aren't like drugs. To "just say no" isn't a solution.

In the case of the relocation or expansion of Friedman Memorial Airport, just saying no is a slow but sure path to oblivion for the Sun Valley area.

While decisions by the Federal Aviation Administration recently reignited the debate over the future of the airport in Hailey, Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz was announcing that the Colorado company's international business has remained strong despite the shaky national economy. He reported "good trends" in international bookings for the coming winter. Many visitors to the company's six major ski areas in Colorado and California come from the United Kingdom, Canada, Mexico and Brazil.

Sun Valley is the grand dame of North American ski resorts and the birthplace of the chairlift, yet international visitors are scarce. Even Canadians seem exotic here. And, it's become manifestly clear during the not-late and still-great recession that the area's economy is inextricably bound to tourism. Believing that not having an airport nearby will be no big deal is like believing that the Tooth Fairy will leave money under our pillows.

Competing resorts in Park City, Utah, Jackson, Wyo., and Steamboat Springs, Aspen and Vail, Colo., all have airports serviced by commercial airlines located within no more than a 45-minute drive. The nearest airports outside Hailey today are in Twin Falls and Boise, two hours or more by car from Sun Valley.

Shortened or curtailed vacations are signs of the times, so it's more important than ever to make air service to Sun Valley reliable and consistent. Time-starved travelers look for quick and reliable ways to get places to give them more time to enjoy the destination.

Right now, there are no obvious good solutions out there for an airport that is rapidly becoming obsolete. The airport is noisily inconvenient for Hailey and Bellevue residents. Expansion beyond existing boundaries will pose problems and raise all kinds of concerns.

Even so, Hailey's economy is nearly solely dependent on what happens in Sun Valley and Ketchum to the north. When the economy in Sun Valley and Ketchum has a cold, Hailey and Bellevue catch pneumonia.

To say this is nearly heresy in fine communities that pride themselves on their independence and status as good places to raise families. But it's undeniable that most families depend on tourism-related jobs or companies that are here because their owners value the area's blend of urban and mountain lifestyles.

Residents who want to "just say no" to expanding or relocating the airport need to pair the rhetoric with a viable alternative that won't leave the area on the road to ruin.

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