The people of the northern Adirondacks can't afford to lose the Adirondack Regional Airport or Cape Air, the airline that is thriving and growing here at SLK.
But the town of Harrietstown can't afford to keep raising taxes to cover 90-plus percent of the airport's annual deficit. Neighboring municipalities kicked in $27,000 to the airport this year while Harrietstown paid $311,000.
So yes, some kind of regional airport district or commission should be formed to fund it.
That was the point Harrietstown officials were driving at when they hosted a public airport meeting on March 21 at the town hall. They gave a brilliant presentation that concisely and effectively summarized a massive amount of information about the airport - history, finances and future options - without going overboard in any way. It's hard to ask one's neighbors to help share the costs of a money pit, but it can be done successfully if the money pit is valuable enough to the neighbors and if one does a good job of communicating that to them honestly, thoroughly and compellingly. The Harrietstown team passed that test with flying colors at this meeting; it was as convincing as anyone in such a situation could hope to be.
First off, the presenters clearly explained that, federal rules being what they are, closing or selling the airport make no sense, and that if the passenger airline is dropped, we're unlikely to ever get it back. So we're stuck with it, but that isn't a bad thing - far from it. Representatives of this area's largest employers and institutions, such as Paul Smith's College, Trudeau Institute and Adirondack Health, said they absolutely rely on this airport for their faculty, students and visiting experts. Also, individuals explained how they use Cape Air regularly to travel for business, to visit far-flung family members and to have others visit them. Word is still spreading about Cape Air's excellent, convenient service and good prices; only recently have many locals finally convinced their relatives to try pricing flights here when they visit. As the economy picks up, so will air traffic and thus the local economy - and, to a certain degree, airport revenue.
Audience members gave perceptive and thought-provoking input, mostly supporting the town's position that the airport is both essential and regional, and that nearby towns and counties need to join with Harrietstown and figure out a way to spread the deficits out fairly.
That breakdown is likely to be the crux. It could be based on a town-by-town breakdown of the airport's $7.4 million annual economic ripple effect, as suggested by a representative of the town of Santa Clara, or it could be based on proportional usage. Lee Gaillard of Saranac Lake suggested that if the airport records each user's local destination or hometown, it could use that data to break down each municipality's payment - not a bad idea for starters, we thought.
All these towns and counties are under pressure to control their own taxes. To convince them, Harrietstown should take a few steps to tighten its operation financially and make sure this airport isn't forgotten out in Lake Clear. At the meeting, Arnie Nidecker said the town should drop its search for an assistant airport manager, citing worker-manager ratios at other airports. Deborah Bowersox said the town should improve signage to the airport. Ernest Hohmeyer said the town should print some basic marketing materials, such as brochures, and consistently distribute them throughout the area. These were important challenges to the town; other municipalities won't want to join an operation that doesn't run at the top of its game.
North Elba town Supervisor Roby Politi expressed some keen skepticism after the meeting, comparing Harrietstown's airport to the Winter Olympic venues his town owns and pays the state Olympic Regional Development Authority to run. True - it's the same kind of situation: Neighboring municipalities get spillover benefits from these venues and don't pay their share of the costs. Maybe they should. But to get that to happen, North Elba would have to make a pitch as Harrietstown did.
As painful as it has been to fund this airport through a recession and its wake, to lose it would be worse: for the area's employers, for tourism, for future ventures like Tupper Lake's Adirondack Club and Resort, and for overall quality of life. Also, since Cape Air has become such a business success story here in hard times, what will it be like when the economy picks up? There's plenty of reason to be patient and hope that better times are just over the horizon.
Even so, it's never been sustainable for Harrietstown to carry this load almost alone, and that needs to change. We hope the discussion prompted by the March 21 meeting continues and results in positive action.