Economy, prepare for takeoff | CraigDailyPress.com

Economy, prepare for takeoff

Local and state specialists highlight perceived advantages of general aviation

Bridget Manley

— Mike Forney posed a big question Wednesday.

“What actual good, earthly use is the Craig airport when you’ve got this wonderful airport in Hayden?” Forney asked, referring to Yampa Valley Regional Airport, of which he is commission chairman.

For the answer, he suggested asking the people who use the airport, including crop dusters and hunters, who are longtime contributors to Craig’s economy.

“Ask the Midwestern hunter and his friends whose chartered airplane dropped him off about 5 miles from the Holiday Inn,” he said.

Forney was one of five local and state specialists who spoke at a forum put on by Craig/Moffat Economic Development Partnership at the Holiday Inn of Craig. He is also a volunteer with Yampa Valley SCORE, an advising group for small businesses.

The meeting was the first of a series designed to outline ways to grow the local economy.

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Presentations Wednesday suggested that while the general economy is suffering, the aviation industry at local and state levels is looking at small airports as potential moneymakers.

Forum speakers limited their discussions to aviation that relies on small, private, noncommercial planes and airports designed for them.

As the economy has slumped, Forney said, airlines are reducing flights, discontinuing service at small cities and charging fees for checking skis and hunting weapons.

In contrast, he added, the general and business aviation industry appears to be growing.

Forney said those changes make airports that cater to smaller planes more attractive for touristers.

Furthermore, Colorado’s geographic qualities make general aviation necessary.

“Colorado’s distances, difficult terrain and wide-open spaces have made general aviation a critical element in our business and personal lives here in Colorado,” he said.

And, communities such as Craig, which are located near airports serving the industry, stand to reap the benefits.

“Many of these small airplanes cost less than a new Cadillac Escalade : but their owners generate significant sales tax revenues, employ local workers, support Yampa Valley businesses and have a positive impact on the local economy,” he said.

Dean Smith, Yampa Valley Regional Airport assistant manager, provided numbers to support Forney’s claim.

More than 25 percent of sales revenue that comes into the Yampa Valley is generated by Yampa Valley Regional Airport, either directly or indirectly, he said, adding that, during its peak season, the airport employs about 130 Moffat County residents.

Building for the future

As the demand for general aviation rises, aviation-related projects also are increasing.

Using almost $5 million from its aeronautics division, the state plans to implement a sonar-like system to make piloting smaller craft safer and easier, Bill Payne, Colorado Surveillance Project program manager for the division, said.

The system would use a series of self-contained units stationed in remote areas around Colorado airports. The system would send a signal to airplanes in flight, which would, in turn, give nearby airports information about the plane’s identity and altitude.

The system would be implemented across the state in phases, with the system’s first stage going in around Craig, Steamboat Springs, Hayden and Rifle, Payne said.

Meanwhile, airports in Routt and Moffat counties are planning facility expansion.

Yampa Valley Regional Airport plans to spend more than $50 million in capital projects and equipment during the next 10 years, Smith said.

And, according to a graphic provided by the Craig/Moffat County Airport, officials plan to install eight corporate hangars and 10 executive hangars.

Finding funds

Still, growing and operating airports come with a price tag.

This year, winter service alone at Yampa Valley Regional Airport is estimated to cost $2.9 million, said Sandy Evans Hall, Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association executive vice president.

In the future, she added, the airport may have to dip into its $1 million reserve because of “volatile” fuel costs and other changes.

Craig/Moffat County Airport officials plan a different approach and will to seek grants to help fund future airport construction and infrastructure, Ray Beck, airport advisory board chair, said.

Still, he singled out other possible sources of support.

“The aviation situation in Moffat County is a unique one that contains untapped opportunities,” he said. “And do I think that, in my opinion, the EDP and (tourism groups) should be promoting our airport?

“You’re darn right.”