Committee hears conflicting views on airport’s value

HUDSON—Tuesday morning Bombadier Aerospace announced 550 additional layoffs at its Learjet plant in Wichita, KS, according to The Wichita Eagle. The move follows 200 job cuts in December and notification to 300 workers to expect furloughs and layoffs over the next six months.

Normally the difficulties of the corporate jet industry might not be significant to local policymakers, but Tuesday afternoon the news from Wichita coincided with the latest meeting of the Columbia County Board of Supervisors Airport Committee, which since September has been considering how best to create a safety zone for jet landings at the county airport in West Ghent. On the agenda was consideration of the airport’s profitability and economic development impact.

The discussion comes as the committee discusses plans for expanding the safety zone around the north end of the single runway. At least one of the plans would require the county to use its power of eminent domain to take private land and impose restrictive easements on a dozen nearby properties.

At the January 21 committee meeting Supervisor Art Baer of Hillsdale, who caucuses with the Republicans, addressed airport profitability. Accounting analyses indicate the airport has run at a slight loss since the lease for Richmor Aviation, the fixed-base operator, was renegotiated in 2008. In 2010 the airport did show a profit of $8,456, but the other years it showed losses of under $5,000.

At the same time, from 2008 to 2012, annual operating expenses increased almost $26,000, from $59,277 to $85,134.

Some airport expenses, like the salaries of county Department of Public Works employees who plow snow and perform other tasks at the airport, are fixed and would not be eliminated if the county no longer owned the airport. “Therefore,” said Mr. Baer, “using a true incremental cost or cash basis of profitability, the airport shows a positive financial contribution to the county. That is, the county would have foregone over $75,000 in cash if the airport had not operated since 2009.”

Using the same type of analysis, jet aircraft made an even more significant contribution from 2010-2013, said Mr. Baer, ranging from a low of $39,400 in 2010 to a high of $48,200 in 2011.

The airport also occasionally generates windfall taxes from aircraft sales. This last happened in 2004, when the county’s share of sales tax from the sale of a jet was “approximately” $400,000.

Kenneth J. Flood, commissioner, and David Crawford, president of the Columbia Economic Development Corporation co-wrote a memo titled “Airport as an Economic Driver.”

“You can’t always pinpoint precisely the value of infrastructure,” said Mr. Crawford. “Economic development is a tool chest. The airport is one of the tools, as are the roads, and the beauty of the environment.”

Mr. Crawford took as an example of success the Genesee County Airport in Batavia, near Rochester. With about 60,000 residents, Genesee is similar in population to Columbia (with about 63,000 residents). “They spend $470,000 on their airport operations,” said Mr. Crawford. “We’re talking about Columbia County spending $60,000 to $70,000. Why not spend more money on the airport and get more out of it?”

When reminded by an audience member that the Genesee airport is between Rochester and Buffalo, while the Columbia airport is circled by airports in Albany, Pittsfield, Connecticut (Bradley International), Newburgh (Stewart International), and, by easy extension, Boston and New York, Mr. Crawford replied that the example wasn’t meant to be exact, just to suggest similarities.

From the audience journalist Sam Pratt, in a report he made to the committee, noted that the Floyd Bennett Memorial Airport in Warren County and the Dutchess County Airport were both losing money (annually $800,000-$900,000 in Warren, $1 million in Dutchess), according to published reports.

Mr. Flood said that Flanders Corp., appreciated use of the airport, and reported that Flanders now employs 270 people, has outgrown its space in Greenport and is renting other space in the county. He also suggested that through such arrangements as land-lease, airport buildings could be developed with private money.

Art Bassin (D-Ancram), chair of the committee, observed that “the airport has lacked an advocate who would see what are the realistic possibilities for it.”

About 30 people attended the two-hour meeting; several asked questions and made comments. “We’re all working for the same objective here,” Mr. Bassin said toward the end of the meeting. “Your contribution is spectacular. But process is process. This committee will make a recommendation [about the safety zone] to the Board of Supervisors, and they will vote on it.”

The next Airport Committee meeting is Thursday, January 30, at 7 p.m. in the West Ghent Firehouse, located in the Gerry Simons Commerce Park between Routes 9H and 66. Mr. Bassin was unable to confirm that representatives from the Federal Aviation Authority would attend, but they are invited. The agenda will include hearing from committee members the pros and the cons of the four current options for creating a safety zone at the airport.

 

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