Friday, June 22, 2012

Fun is serious business

The criticism aimed at a conference of judges with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals underscores why reducing plane fares to Sun Valley has to be part of any good business plan for the area's economy.

It also highlights the conflict between the desire to keep government spending under control in these tight economic times and the still-present need for public servants to meet in person and to understand the regions they serve.

Two Republican U.S. senators have threatened budget cuts for federal courts because they don't like a judges' conference set for Maui. Hawaii is part of the 9th Circuit along with Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

U.S. Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, say the conference is too lavish and strikes the wrong tone in a time of government budget cuts.

The court is unapologetic and defends the conference, saying it picked Maui's competitive room rates and cheaper travel costs over other areas including Anchorage, Alaska, and Sun Valley.

With travel down in recent years, companies with operations in Hawaii have drastically slashed rates for air travel and lodging. Sun Valley businesses and government leaders have long known that the cost of regional flights to the area makes traveling here more expensive than travel to other destination resort areas.

Sun Valley Resort has participated in subsidizing airfares for years, but the state Constitution prohibits city and county governments from directly subsidizing airlines. Even so, it's not impossible for local governments to use the locally levied "tourist tax" to help airlines bring visitors here. They can contribute their own marketing efforts and help support the Fly Sun Valley Alliance, a group dedicated to working with airlines to find ways to get more visitors here and to growing seat subsidies through private fundraising.

The Sun Valley City Council this week proposed an increase in the city's financial support for the group. It bumped its contribution for next year to $38,000. That won't solve the problem of high air fares, but it's a step in the right direction.

As for the good senators, would they have lodged the same objections if the judges were to meet in Seattle, take a tour of Boeing and have a spin in the company's Dreamliner on their agenda instead of afternoons left open for resort sports?

In their zeal to cut spending, the senators should remember that tourism is a national industry, too, that electronic meetings will never replace face-to-face interactions, and that Hawaii is part of the United States of America.

And, the 9th Circuit should remember that the Sun Valley area would like to host its next confab.

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