Grant collaboration poised to take flight

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Community leaders were sorely disappointed last September when they were turned down for a federal grant that would have been used to expand airline service into the Yampa Valley. But they didn't give up.

Now, the prospect of adding a second commercial carrier to autumn and early winter service at Yampa Valley Regional Airport is real.

Routt County was awarded a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation this month that is meant to expand air service here for three years. Beginning in 2005, a flight from a hub beyond Denver likely would serve Yampa Valley Regional Airport from June until Dec. 14, when larger ski-season jets begin to arrive.

Landing the grant required a private-public partnership that involved executives at the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., members of the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association, the town of Hayden and the cities of Steamboat Springs and Craig, and Routt and Moffat counties.

"This is one of the best examples I'm aware of, of the private and public sectors working together," Routt County Manager Tom Sullivan said. "It's the result of three years of working together."

He said Colorado Department of Transportation officials, at the urging of Gov. Bill Owens' office, also helped pave the way for the YVRA grant.

Sullivan pointed out that YVRA was the only one of several Colorado airports to be awarded such a grant.

The community first tried in 2002 to land one of the grants. Despite a concerted lobbying effort, it was turned down. In 2003, Sullivan was more confident. However, a decision to try to use some of the potential grant monies for terminal improvements may have been the undoing of the application. The grants heavily emphasize expanding air service over airport improvements.

The third time around, the county and the business community decided not to lobby federal officials. Instead, they relied on their demonstrated will to bring the Houston flights here on their own to persuade CDOT. The strategy paid off.

Everyone involved hopes the expanded fall service will have the same effect it did this summer of lowering airfares and increasing arrivals and departures by establishing a competitive market here.

"We know that Northwest Colorado needs convenient air access out of more than one hub to be economically viable," American Skiing Co. marketing executive Andy Wirth said.

United Express added a fourth daily turboprop flight from Denver in response to the competition from Continental this summer. Its planes were 83 percent full in July. The 50-passenger Continental jet from Houston was 75 percent full in July.

Steamboat is served by five major airlines during ski season. But until the summer of 2004, service into YVRA was limited to United Express.

Airline service in spring, summer and fall was turbulent during the past five years, as a succession of five commuter airlines flew the flag of United Express. An experimental daily jet from Houston, flown by Continental Airlines, proved there is unmet demand in the valley and may have played a role in landing the federal grant.

Fall service beyond United Express flights won't be a sure thing until contracts are signed, Ski Corp. airline program director Janet Fischer warned. And even if they are signed, those contracts will have to be renegotiated annually. Not all communities awarded grants in the past have been able to sign the contracts needed to lure airlines to their markets, Sullivan said.

"The Department of Transportation still has grants left over from '02 because people haven't been able to put together the program," Sullivan said.

The Yampa Valley has a head start in that department because of its ongoing airline relationships forged during negotiations for ski-season jet service.

"That's where we have an advantage," Fischer said. "We've got those relationships."

Fischer worked with the county on the grant application and will continue to serve in the role of monitoring performance of the flights and contracts for summer and fall air travel.

Fischer anticipates that if the summer/fall relationship with Continental continues next year, it will be handled as a single contract.

The terms of the match call for the community to provide a cash match of $185,000.

Wirth said the community's track record with the airlines, combined with its demonstrated willingness to provide airline revenue guarantees sends a strong signal.

"We've not only demonstrated our ability to manage an air program, but we've demonstrated the ability to make the match," he said.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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