Plan, study guide airport's future

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— For more than 50 years, Steam--boat Springs Airport has been a part of the community.

But the need for an airport in Steamboat has been the subject of a years-long debate. Some say it should remain open because it provides benefit to the community; others say it costs the city too much money and should be closed.

The airport's future could be decided soon by Steamboat Springs City Council members. The council voted last week to have an independent party write a new Steamboat Springs Airport Master Plan and conduct a study that will explore alternatives for the airport and the land it occupies.

Council members say they hope the results of the plan and study will help them decide whether the airport should remain open.

The history

In 1955, Routt County purchased the airport, which, at the time, consisted of a dirt landing strip. The airport, also known as Bob Adams Field, was named after a man who spearheaded an airport improvement program in the late 1950s and into the 1960s.

The airport grew until it became eligible for federal funding in 1983. Six years later, the city of Steamboat Springs acquired Bob Adams Field.

In 1993, a $2.8 million, 17,000-square-foot terminal project was completed. Two years later, commercial service at the airport ended. The city tried to renew commercial service for several years but was unsuccessful.

City officials found another use for the terminal in 2002, when they decided to lease it to SmartWool. Revenue from the lease is one contributor to the city's efforts to pay off the debt related to the terminal project; that debt will be cleared by 2009. Debt from other projects will continue past that date.

The city has an enterprise fund for the airport. Enterprise funds are run like businesses -- fees and charges are meant to offset the cost of operation. However, airport revenues have not offset the cost of operating it. The city has been subsidizing the airport fund at an average of $300,000 to $450,000 a year. In 2005, the subsidy was $341,755. It is not unusual for enterprise funds to receive some amount of subsidy, said Don Taylor, the city's director of financial services.

The airport property spans nearly 460 acres, some of which were purchased with federal grants. There are more than 70 aircraft based at the airport, said George Krawzoff, the city's director of transit and transportation services. There are 44 hangars where planes are stored. The airport also houses several businesses, city-operated and private.

About 10,000 aircraft operations -- takeoffs and landings -- take place at the airport each year, Krawzoff said. He said that number is similar to the number of annual aircraft operations at Yampa Valley Regional Airport in Hayden. However, because YVRA is home to commercial carriers, the number of passengers who use the Hayden airport is significantly higher than the number of people who use Steamboat Springs Airport.

Researching the airport

Steamboat Springs Airport has been the subject of previous studies.

The Colorado Department of Transportation commissioned a study in 2000 that included information about the economic effect of Colorado airports. According to the state, the Steamboat Springs Airport generated 116 jobs, about $3 million in annual wages and about $7.5 million in economic activity.

The Yampa Valley Airport Commission prepared and completed a report about Steamboat Springs Airport in 2004. The report concluded that the airport should remain open.

On Tuesday, the City Council took steps to ensure that more studies will be done. The council approved the creation of two documents: a Steamboat Springs Airport Master Plan and an "alternatives study" that would answer questions not explored in the master plan.

The master plan will replace the one completed in 1998, when officials anticipated the presence of commercial service at the airport. The master plan will cost about $250,000; federal and state grant monies could cover much of that cost. City staff members anticipate that the plan will explore the level of economic benefit the airport provides to the community as well as what investments are needed at the airport.

For the new master plan, city officials will do "aggressive outreach" to get community members' thoughts, Krawzoff said. He wants input from people on both sides of the issue.

"We have a desire to have the people most critical of the airport involved in the master plan," he said. "We want to know their concerns and whether they can be addressed."

The alternatives study could cost between $75,000 and $100,000. Topics may include determining the value of the airport land if it was not occupied by the airport as well as the effects consolidation could have on Yampa Valley Regional Airport.

Mixed feelings

Members of the aviation community have mixed feelings about the council's decision.

A couple of general aviation pilots expressed their support of the studies during Tuesday's council meeting.

ATP (airline transport) pilot Joe Birkinbine, who has taught flight training at Steamboat Springs Airport since 1988, agrees with the council's decision to perform an alternatives study and update the airport's master plan.

"It's going to give them an unbiased look at all the information that would be necessary to make a good decision for the future of the airport," Birkinbine said.

One piece of information that interests Birkinbine is the amount of revenue the airport brings to the community. Those revenues may not just be at the airport, he said. People who fly here spend money at restaurants, hotels and other businesses, thus generating sales tax revenue.

Birkinbine said determining the value of local airports will help the council make a decision.

But Steve Green, who flies his plane out of Steamboat Springs Airport for business purposes, questioned the council's decision to do the master plan and alternatives study.

"Will they be open to the results of the study?" Green asked. If council members already know how they are going to vote about the airport's future, then they are wasting money on the studies, he said.

Green said certain information will be helpful for any council members who are considering closing the airport. He said the studies need to address whether consolidation would pose safety problems because more aircraft would be flying in and out of Yampa Valley Regional Airport. Also, he said, the study should include information about the cost of shutting down the airport.

Getting the facts

Council members said Friday that they have not made up their minds about the airport's future and that they are open to whatever answers the studies may provide.

"My mind is in no way made up," council member Towny Anderson said. "I clearly stated that during the campaign." Anderson was elected in November. During his campaign, he said he needed more information about the airport's finances and potential before taking a stance on its future.

"It's all about just getting information," Anderson said Friday. "This is an opportunity for an independent study to give us the facts."

Anderson expects the studies to provide information about the cost to close the airport versus keeping it open. He also wants information that will help the council decide whether to keep the airport -- a rare asset in resort communities -- or to consolidate Steamboat Springs Airport and Yampa Valley Regional Airport as an economic measure.

Anderson, who has a background in historic preservation, views the airport as he would view a historic building -- after it's gone, it can't come back. Therefore, he said, the issue needs careful review based on facts.

"Removing a community asset is not something that is done carelessly or without the full, full picture," Anderson said.

Council member Paul Strong said he voted for a new master plan and an alternatives study because they are the best way to look at future issues, opportunities and problems related to the airport.

"Just thinking about today is shortsighted," he said. "You always want to plan for the future."

Like Anderson, Strong said he has an open mind about the outcome of the debate and that he needs the facts to help him make a decision.

Strong said he hopes the studies will provide information beyond finances and economics. He said there are other ways the airport could be an asset to the community and that those should be considered.

"I think we have to be careful about how we judge that, not just judge by the numbers," Strong said.

Strong and Anderson said they hope to receive information about very light jets, or VLJs. The jets could change the outlook of aviation, both council members said.

Council members Susan Dellinger and Ken Brenner, council president, did not return calls seeking comment about the airport issue. Dellinger, who sits on the Yampa Valley Airport Commission, is the council member who asked her colleagues last week to explore alternatives for the airport, including its closure.

Anderson said people on both sides of the issue are emotional about the airport.

"People have passion," he said. "Pilots are passionate about their vocation, and people are just as passionate about the perceived duplication of services.

"This begs for fact finding. Let's put the facts out there, and that will change the nature of the dialogue."

-- To reach Dana Strongin, call 871-4229

or e-mail dstrongin@steamboatpilot.com

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