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Beware of What You Ask For
March 25, 2012 - Ernest Hohmeyer
I attended the Town of Harrietstown’s public meeting on the future of the Adirondack Regional Airport.
It was an impressive showing.
It’s nearly rivaled the public meeting held by the 21st Century Commission.
My hat is off to the Town of Harrietstown. They really made an effort to reach out. There were also excellent presentations from a host of officials ranging from the Town to Cape Air to consultants.
The message from the public with clear: Take the burden of running the airport away from the sole responsibility of the Town of Harrietstown. Put the word “regional” back into the Adirondack Regional Airport.
I had the sense that the wide array of public officials attending recognized the importance of the facility. Whether it be by commercial air service or airport users who built second homes in their towns, they understood that there was some intrinsic value to their community.
The theme from the Town was also clear: they were reaching out. They had no clear answers though it was obvious they were looking for greater local government involvement.
Perhaps it was due to the history of the facility when it was operated by a loose consortium of towns known as the “airport district.”
While there appears to be genuine interest in greater participation, I do not believe that additional local government support will come anywhere near the investment needed to operate the airport viably.
No Silver Bullet
All local governments are under duress whether it is a county, town or village. They are all facing a combination of increasing costs, government mandates and stagnant economic base.
While certainly spreading the cost of the airport out to a greater number of public sponsors would be helpful, it may not alleviate the central question and that is the overall viability of the facility. Any community which relies on one industry as its economic base is often not a healthy one. We need only to look at some of our own Adirondack communities that relied on mining or wood products.
A business today that depends on only one source of income may be in precarious financial condition. With little growth in the economy, many of us need to diversify to survive.
A facility like the airport, where 70% of its revenue comes from the volatile rate of fuel sales, may not be a stable investment.
There was a great deal of discussion on the “form” of the airport in the future: more government participation, an airport authority or down-sizing.
We may need a greater conversation on the “substance” or the vision, of the facility going forward.
The Big Picture
The airport may need to consider like many of our own businesses to diversify its revenue. There may be three ways they can do so: - General aviation - Commercial - Non-aviation
The Adirondacks can be a wonderful destination for general aviation. Pilots and their families would love to fly here to vacation.
On the commercial side, increasing passenger enplanements beyond 10,000 provides an additional potential of another $1 million in aviation funding.
The airport is a 1,500 acre facility that is next to a 290 acre business park. There is a tremendous opportunity to generate non-aviation related industry, jobs and tax base.
But do so may require a business plan with short and long-term goals.
The business plan to be successful may require broad public and private involvement:
- Marketing: Business, aviation officials, tourism organizations - Financing: Banks, economic development organizations - Operations/Management: Non-profit businesses, other airport leaders
Based on the outpouring of local government participants at Wednesday’s meeting, the Town needs to be wary not to constitute their support as the lone “silver bullet.” Local government may have an interest but they have very limited capacity.
For all of us in these challenging economic times, there is no single “magic bullet.” You need to crawl and scratch and most importantly, think out of the box.
Quid Pro Quo
The Town also needs to be careful that it does not consider the airport as the only “regional asset” in our area. Virtually all towns have what they consider “regional assets.” North Elba for example, is facing increasing pressure to continue its same level of commitment to the Olympic Regional Development Authority despite declining state participation. Other surrounding towns have regional assets such as ski mountains, trails or potentially significant economic projects like the Adirondack Club & Resort.
The Town by asking for increased support for its “regional asset” may become a “quid pro quo” by other towns asking for additional help.
If the Town expects the surrounding communities to increase their contributions they may also have to contribute something back.
The Town may need to be careful what they are asking for.
A successful business partnership is often focused on common goals and mutual benefit. The airport does appear to have a value to local government as a regional asset. Partnerships are a two-way street.
Other Ways to “Partner”
Significant participation by local government may require for the airport to become more than an aviation facility to increase the value of the “partnership.” For example:
- A regional Highway Department or emergency response center with the neighboring towns of Santa Clara, Brighton, etc. - Working with the village of Saranac Lake and Franklin County IDA on a regional approach to attracting biotech industries.
An additional pathway is to diversify revenue from the private sector.
Discussion on the future of the airport may not be fully realized without the involvement of the airport users themselves. They have an interest in the airport. Many are successful business people and may be a source of ideas. Perhaps there is the possibility that a few will also want to be a “partner.”
In the meantime, there may be some short and long-range initiatives the Town can undertake:
- Continue the discussion with local government - Complete a survey on who uses the facility which could help to develop a funding formula - Develop basic marketing materials for aviation and non-aviation investment. - Bring private and public partners together to develop a business plan.
There may be no single answers, but the region is rich in people resources that can help with this regional asset.
Local government support may not appear as the Town would like and creative out-of-the-box thinking may be required. Contracting out the fixed base operations like the town of North Elba does, creating an “Airport User Foundation” to help pay for “local share” for grants, are just some of the ideas that are out there.
The Town will need to play a leadership role and agree that the facility may require a new visionary business plan.
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