Steamboat airport debated

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Three City Council members fired pointed questions at the Yampa Valley Airport Commission about its report, which advocates keeping the Steamboat Springs Airport open.

At Wednesday's joint council and county commissioners meeting, the Airport Commission was on hand to answer questions about a cost-benefit analysis it did on the economic, social and safety issues related to keeping the airport open.

Routt County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak called the report a starting point for discussing the two airports.

Airport Commission member Joe McNasby compiled the report and found that it initially would cost the city $18 million a year to close the airport and then more than $4 million a year.

Those costs include reimbursing the Federal Aviation Administration for millions of dollars in federal grants and spending nearly $5 million to buy out hangar contracts.

Council members Susan Dellinger, Steve Ivancie and Ken Brenner raised questions about the report, asking how much research looked at the repayment of the FAA grants or the benefit of the city funneling money into the Yampa Valley Regional Airport instead of the city's airport.

Much of Wednesday's 1 1/2 hour discussion was spent with council members questioning the validity of the report and Airport Commission members defending it. Brenner said the biggest discrepancy taxpayers see with the two airports is the estimated economic benefit the city airport brings into the community, $7.5 million, compared with the $183 million YVRA generates.

"YVRA is clearly the lion's share with $180 million. And the county operates that airport for us," Brenner said.

Operating the city airport costs the city about $185,000 a year, McNasby said, but the airport brings in $65,000 more annually through the sales tax revenue generated by its users.

The report also pointed to social and safety benefits related to drawing location-neutral businesses to Steamboat and providing a home for Civil Air Patrol and the Yampa Valley Air Ambulance Service.

"Most of the discussion has been on the economics," Airport Commission Chairman Marty Kolonel said. "In my view, the social and safety issues are perhaps more compelling."

Dellinger asked whether the commission had looked into privatizing the airport. The group said they had looked at the cost benefit of using the airport for other uses, but it had not looked at privately operating the airport. Dellinger also expressed concern with continually dumping money into the airport while also spending money on YVRA and winter flight programs.

"As a county of 20,000 people, there is very little to pull from here to make this a regional airport," Dellinger said. "From a common-sense stand point, dispersing the minimal funds we have over so many ways, is it really the best use of our tax dollars?"

Steamboat Springs Airport Manager Matt Grow said grant funding for the two airports usually comes from two separate pots. For the money coming from the same discretionary fund, the two airports are among the 70 in Colorado competing for the money.

Prompted by questions from Dellinger, Kolonel said having general aviation and commercial aviation at the same airport could increase the risk of in-air collisions.

"(Consolidation) increases the number of operations in that air space, and that increases the chance of an accident," Kolonel said.

Residents also attended the meeting to speak in favor and against keeping the Steamboat Springs Airport open.

Attorney Mark Freirich said he represented the group Consolidate Airports Now, LLC, which strongly disagrees with the commission's findings. The group is proposing that all development of the airport stop and no new grants be given until voters approve keeping the Steamboat Springs Airport open.

"Consolidation could potentially save millions of tax dollars by eliminating duplication of equipment, personnel, security protection, capital expenditures and routine maintenance costs," the letter from the group read. "In any case, consolidation costs are insignificant compared to the taxpayer dollars that are and will be spent to keep the (city) airport open for the benefit of a privileged few."

Mike Forney, an Airport Commission member who uses the airport regularly, said the airport is an asset to the community and that many small businesses depend on it to do business outside of Steamboat.

Airport Commission members said the goal of the report was to provide data for a factual debate.

"This doesn't have to be a battle. It can be collaboration. The Airport Commission is genuinely attempting to do what is best for the community," Kolonel said.

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