What benefit will an expanded Durango-La Plata County Airport be to rural southeast county residents, especially those who are struggling economically?
Audience member Tom Givon posed that question at a presentation in Ignacio on July 27. He and a woman were the only audience members other than a Times reporter and county economic development representatives.
Roger Zalneraitis, director of the County Economic Development Alliance, cited statistics from a just-released study of the airport's economic impacts.
The alliance is promoting voter approval this November of the property tax increase. This will be "a one-time tax increase that sunsets in 20 years or less," Zalneraitis said.
This would pay about half of the estimated $85 million cost to build a new larger terminal on airport land on the east side of the runway, create a new parking area, new plane parking area, and new access road to Highway 172. It's been stressed that this is to meet current needs. Future improvements beyond this would be based on passenger growth and would be self-funded, Zalneraitis said.
He said there are 11 flights a day during the off seasons and 14 a day in winter and summer. "Four planes stay overnight. That's all we have room for," he said. A plane needing emergency repairs occupies plane parking space. In addition, he said the airport has no place to store parts that might be needed for repairs, so repairs are delayed until the part is brought from elsewhere.
"We have 380,000 to 400,000 passengers a year getting off or on," Zalneraitis said. The airport is a self-supporting enterprise with a budget of $3.2 million to $4 million a year, he said. That all comes from fees charged to airport users or from Federal Aviation Administration grants. There are no taxpayer subsidies from the county or City of Durango, he said. "They operate like a business."
He cited the economic impact study that the airport generates almost $5 million a year in county sales and property taxes and Durango sales taxes. It generates almost 1,900 jobs in the county and around $119 million a year of household income.
"Spending by out-of-town visitors provides DRO's most substantial economic impact," the study says. "Virtually all visitors bring new money into the economy, supporting jobs at a variety of local businesses," it says.
Givon wanted to know "how much filters to this side of the county, how much filters down to households rather than business owners. Who benefits? It's very important, especially for people on this side of the county."
Zalneraitis cited the number of people who work from home. "If they were a separate industry, they'd be the second-fastest growing industry in the state, and it tends to pay very well," he said. "Here they are almost 10 percent of the workforce." Many are in the north county towards Purgatory or Vallecito. The next group are in Bayfield, then south to Ignacio. Those that want ranchettes are in the latter group.
These people wouldn't be here without the airport, he asserted.
Givon countered, "Are you implying the beneficiaries are people who move here rather than people who grew up here and are kind of stuck here?"
Zalneraitis cited businesses like Crossfire and Red Willow that need air service. "The air service that some want will never come with the current terminal," he said. "Crossfire hires a lot of local people. ... I've had a couple businesses tell me, no internet, no air service, we're gone." He said that in 2013, one company hired new staff in Denver rather than here because of unreliable air service here, "and those were $70,000-a-year jobs."
He continued, "The air terminal enables or prevents air service." The big times for passenger traffic are first thing in the morning and at lunch time. "That's when the airlines want to be here. We have no extra space for planes to land during those times. There are 600 passengers at lunch. The terminal is designed to handle 300."
Bigger planes with more seats must be parked at an angle, and the airport loses a gate, he said. "So you lose competition. If you think service and fares are bad now, wait until United is the only one."
The airport has only one de-icing station which can back up departures and cause people to miss connecting flights, he said. Delays in TSA security lines are another issue. Passenger parking space "is pretty much maxed out too."
Zalneraitis passed out a diagram with red circles showing where terminal, plane parking, and taxiway facilities get D, E, or F ratings based on standards from an international airport authority. "The typical airport in the U.S. has about a C rating in peak hours. In Europe, it's a B. ...
The goal is to get these red dots to go away," he said. "They create customer complaints like, 'I missed my flight."
Zalneraitis said if airlines get enough complaints about DRO, they could pull a flight and send it elsewhere. "That's a critical driving factor. The infrastructure is showing its age. It was designed for another era." Isolated small modifications won't fix that, because things are interrelated. "If we're at two times the capacity, we need a terminal that's two times the size. There's no cheap way to do that."
He stressed that more than half of the new terminal and other improvements will be paid by airport users via the FAA grant and another $4 to $6 million from DRO users.
Givon cited opposition to the plan from nearby ag landowners. Zalneraitis agreed, saying, "They do believe the airport is coming for their land. The county and city already own the land." But in the 1990s, the county and city did take land by eminent domain, he said. "That has repercussions to this day. ... Eminent domain is a prairie fire. The answer (to more of that) is no."
Zalneraitis also said the nearby landowners are concerned that if the airport expands, the county will restrict how they can use their land. That was discussed in May and June when county planning commissioners updated the airport chapter of the comprehensive plan, as reported in the Times on May 13 and June 10. Zalneraitis said, "My understanding is whatever they can do now, they'll still be able to do. What they can't do now because it's in the glide path doesn't have to do with the terminal."
Givon said it will be a tough sell to convince locals who are struggling economically to support something if they think it will benefit mainly Durango businesses and well-to-do outsiders. He speculated that having this on the ballot along with the county's road and bridge property tax will cause both to lose.
The Economic Development Alliance web site about the airport, including the economic impact study, is at www.yesfordro.org. The study is under the resources tab.