Friday, December 28, 2012

Friedman expansion still uncertain

In 2012 airport news, LOT fails and Burke resigns

Express Staff Writer

Express file photo In 2012, a debate raged on about whether to expand Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey to improve commercial air service.

The cities of Ketchum, Hailey and Sun Valley unsuccessfully tried to implement a tax this year that would have helped the valley keep and even expand commercial air service. 

The Idaho Attorney General’s Office issued an opinion in March stating that if operation of an airport can be shown to be a public purpose, and if minimum-revenue guarantees are shown to be crucial to the continued operation of the airport, cities contributing funds to guarantees could be legally defensible.

Minimum-revenue guarantees are payments made to commercial airlines to guarantee that the carriers will make a certain amount of money per year in small, risky markets such as Sun Valley. Flights to Friedman Memorial Airport from Seattle and Los Angeles are secured by minimum-revenue guarantees paid to Horizon Airlines.

Currently, those guarantees—the amounts of which have not been disclosed—are funded by Sun Valley Co., partly through Fly Sun Valley Alliance’s sale of corporate ski passes donated by the resort. The alliance works to promote air service to the Wood River Valley.

Fly Sun Valley Alliance President Eric Seder went before the Blaine County commissioners and the Ketchum, Hailey and Sun Valley city councils throughout June and July, pushing the cities to agree to a ballot measure that, if passed, would have added an additional 1 percent local-option tax to some sales.

The 1 percent tax was proposed on retail sales in Ketchum and Sun Valley, as well as liquor by the drink, lodging, restaurant meals and ski passes. In Hailey, the tax would have been applied only to lodging and rental cars.

Fly Sun Valley Alliance Executive Director Carol Waller said the additional tax would have raised roughly $2 million. The funds would have been used to secure nonstop flights from San Francisco by the end of 2013, as well as to market those flights and gain two more nonstop flights from other markets by the end of 2015. Sun Valley Co. would have matched the amount paid for minimum-revenue guarantees, an estimated $900,000 for flights from Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The city councils and county also passed a joint-powers agreement that would have created the Sun Valley Air Service Board. The board would have been made up of representatives from the three cities and the county, in charge of overseeing the money’s distribution.

Though advocates said the move would bring more visitors into the valley, thus boosting businesses and aiding the local economy, opponents said the LOT for air would be illegal and would actually harm some businesses.

Towne and Parke Fine Jewelry owner Tom Keenan said he worried that an additional LOT would cost him local business that might not be balanced out by an increase in visitors. The current LOT in Sun Valley, where Towne and Parke is located, is at 2 percent. In Hailey, his competitors collect only state sales tax and no local-option tax.

“I used to have a real good clientele out of Hailey,” he said. “I think people look and say, ‘I can pay 8 percent or I can pay 6 percent.’”

Despite assurances from economic experts—some of whom estimated that each store in the valley could gain 1,200 new customers—the ballot measure failed in Ketchum and Hailey. Sun Valley passed the LOT by a narrow margin, but the ballot measure approved was contingent on Ketchum’s measure passing as well.

A majority of voters supported the measure in Ketchum and Hailey, but fell short of the 60 percent required by Idaho law. The city of Sun Valley voted 61 percent in favor of the new tax, and 58 percent of Ketchum voters cast their ballots in favor. Hailey voters overall supported the new tax by 59 percent. Three precincts passed the measure with more than 60 percent of the vote, but low support in Woodside eventually defeated the measure.

Seder said that if his organization were to re-launch a campaign next year, the group would work harder to educate and energize voters.

“There were a lot of negative emails circulating that contained a lot of misinformation and factual errors,” he said, adding, “I think a great many people thought that this was such an obviously appropriate thing to do that they didn’t really worry about it [passing].”

The measure cannot be put on the ballot again until November 2013.


Regional jet approval

Regional jets got a green light from the Federal Aviation Administration in October, meaning that they could be landing at Friedman Memorial Airport in the near future. One consequence of the larger planes is that the number of flights would be decreased.

FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer said a final environmental assessment for SkyWest airline’s plan to fly a 65-passenger CRJ-700 into Sun Valley was approved in the last week of October.

An environmental assessment compiled by aviation consulting firm Mead and Hunt showed that use of regional jets for two flights a day would not have a significant impact on the surrounding area’s air quality, noise level or safety.

The FAA also completed a Safety Management System process, which involved field visits to the airport and a test run of the aircraft to ensure that the CRJ-700 could be operated safely under the same procedures used for Horizon Air’s Q-400.

SkyWest has not yet indicated when it will begin using the CRJ-700 in its operations into and out of Friedman.


Airport expansion and replacement

Though a study to determine the impacts of building a replacement airport was not restarted this year after having been discontinued in 2011, members of the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority presented seven options for expansion of the current site to the FAA in December.

Consideration of the seven options began in October, when T-O Engineers aviation consultants showed the authority seven ways that the airport could meet FAA design standards for C-III aircraft—aircraft that approach faster and have wider wingspans than those currently in compliance with the airport’s design standards.

T-O Engineers spokesman Dave Mitchell said many of the options were simply implausible.

For example, one option would require moving state Highway 75 and the Wood River Trails bike path to the east, and condemning 88 homes in the Woodside neighborhood of Hailey.  The estimated cost would be $119 million and would require shutting down the airport for two years.

Other alternatives involved moving the highway not as far to the east or shifting the current runway south into the Flying Hat Ranch north of Bellevue. One option would require no land acquisition but would mean the loss of snow removal storage and general aviation airport parking.

The city of Hailey refused to support all but two alternatives—the one that requires no land acquisition and one that would involve buying part of the Flying Hat Ranch to replace snow storage and aircraft parking.

Hailey City Councilwoman and then-authority board member Martha Burke said at a meeting in early December that she wished she could compromise with other members of the board and identify elements of the other options the city could support; however, she said, she was not being allowed to.

“We agree with you,” she said to the other members of the authority on behalf of the Hailey representatives. “We are not being allowed to compromise. We are being given direct guidance by our mayor and council members.”

Burke later resigned in the aftermath of that comment. Hailey Mayor Fritz Haemmerle said last week that her replacement would be chosen at a Jan. 7 meeting of the City Council, and that he would be interested in serving on the authority.

“It’s been far too long since the mayor of the town sat on the authority,” he said.

The FAA has not announced a preference for any of the airport expansion options, but is expected to early in 2013.

Kate Wutz:

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