Friday, December 2, 2011

Business owners: Airport is ‘critical’

Sustain Blaine presents economic data about Friedman


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

More than 100 people came to the Valley Club north of Hailey on Wednesday night to see what business owners had to say about the importance of Friedman Memorial Airport. Photo by David N. Seelig

According to polling data from a Wednesday forum on the economic impacts of Friedman Memorial Airport, 64 percent of Wood River Valley business owners say the airport is "critical" to their businesses' success.

The forum at the Valley Club was hosted by the Sustain Blaine economic development group for the purpose of determining how valuable the airport is to the local economy, said Executive Director Harry Griffith at the meeting.

Many of the poll questions asked centered on how often businesses use the current airport to ship products, receive supplies and rendezvous with customers.

However, Griffith was careful to keep the debate strictly focused on money and business success.

"We're here to talk strictly about economics," he told participants. "We are not here to talk about airport locations."

Griffith said that focus was the reason for only inviting valley business owners, not the general public, to weigh in on economic questions using handheld "clicker" devices that recorded the users' answers to polling questions.

The invitees were limited to business owners, government representatives and other community organizations with large budgets, he said. The businesses were chosen based on the top 60 employers in the valley, including Power Engineers, Smith Optics and the St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center.

"These are entities that have economic impacts," he said. "They have budgets in the millions of dollars, they have hundreds of employees."

According to polling data from the meeting, 59 percent of the businesses present reported $2 million in revenue within the past 12 months. Only 18 percent, however, said they employed more than 200 people, including part-time and seasonal.

Much of the meeting centered on the poll questions, which quizzed participants on everything from what airports they use most often to what potential nonstop flights from Sun Valley they would find most valuable. New York City, Chicago and Denver were the destinations most cited from a list of 10.

According to the collected data, 89 percent of participants said they use Friedman Memorial Airport as one of their top three airports, followed by Twin Falls airport (49 percent) and Boise. When they do use other airports, participants said, they are motivated by flight prices, reliability and the availability of nonstop flights.

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This figure seemed to surprise Sustain Blaine Treasurer Joy Kasputys, who said she expected more people to choose "personal" reasons for flying out of Twin Falls or Boise.

"Does this mean we're not shopping at Costco?" she asked.

The questions were prefaced with a presentation from Griffith, who estimated that Friedman Memorial Airport brings between $143 million and $374 million to the valley each year.

"I actually think it's closer to $370 million, to be honest," Griffith said in a later interview.

According to a 2008 Idaho Airport Systems Plan developed by the Idaho Transportation Department, Friedman Memorial Airport is the second-largest commercial airport in the state, providing 1,550 jobs and roughly 20 percent of the county's gross domestic product.

"Commercial air service is the engine that drives the Blaine County economy," Griffith said at the meeting. "Air service, at the end of the day, is the glue that weaves this valley together."

But some participants said the importance of the airport was never up for debate. Dr. Rich Paris from St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center said the airport was critically important for the hospital, and in more human ways than the numbers indicate.

"There are several instances a year where it is literally a life-and-death issue for people in our community," he said, adding that the hospital helps bring people to the valley via the airport.

"Every time a baby is born, three to five people fly into town to meet the new baby and help out," he said. "Every time Grandpa falls and breaks his hip, there are two or three people who fly in to be with him."

Sustain Blaine board Chair and developer George Kirk agreed with Paris and the assessment of the airport's impact, saying the question of the airport's importance has already been "asked and answered."

"To me, the question is, 'What do we do at the existing site to make it work for all of us?'" he said. "That's the question du jour—but it's not Sustain Blaine's question to answer."

Griffith said final data from the meeting will be available in several weeks, with reports that break down responses by location, business revenue and other characteristics.

Sustain Blaine will host another poll-based meeting at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 7, at the Blaine County Courthouse in Hailey. Griffith said all who were not invited to participate during the Nov. 30 meeting are welcome to weigh in at next week's meeting.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com

Be there, be heard

Didn't get the chance to weigh in on Wednesday night? Sustain Blaine will poll the public at its meeting at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 7, at the Blaine County Courthouse in Hailey. The meeting is open to the public. People will be given handheld polling devices and a chance to answer business-based airport questions.




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