The Daily Star, Oneonta, NY - otsego county news, delaware county news, oneonta news, oneonta sports

September 18, 2011

Airport funds could be better spent elsewhere


Daily Star

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Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against private planes and flying, but something's out of whack when the Oneonta airport gets funding of nearly half a million federal dollars while the city's streets are crumbling beneath local motorists.

The $481,000 from the Federal Aviation Administration announced last week is earmarked for the second phase of a tree-removal project near a runway approach. Because the funding is there, it must be used for an airport project in a community that has far-more-pressing needs: streets, housing rehab, downtown development, you name it.

But perhaps one question being asked is whether the city of Oneonta should be paying tens of thousands of dollars a year for an airport whose benefits extend far beyond the city limits.

The Oneonta Municipal Airport, which is 45 years old this month, in the best of times is a great regional asset linked to industrial development and job creation. That's what the Oneonta Chamber of Commerce envisioned back in 1964 when it led the campaign for a new airport.

And there's no doubt the facility adequately served that purpose for many years, during which a commuter airline, Catskill Airways, was based there and offered daily flights to New York City. Buyers working for Bresee's Department Store could fly to LaGuardia in the morning, do their business in the garment district and be home for dinner.

However, since that airline departed in 1989, the airport has been restricted to handling private and charter flights, and to some extent has become a landing site for Cooperstown-area tourists. The airport hangar usually houses 20 to 25 private planes.

Even in the best of times of the past few decades, the vision for the airport's economic potential seems never to have realized _ at least for the city of Oneonta, which foots the bill of more than $90,000 a year.

A 2004 report on the airport's economic impact suggested that the facility annually supports 44 jobs, generates $980,000 in income and has a $3.1 million economic impact in the region. It even hints that Wal-Mart may not have located here if the airport did not exist.

Since 75 percent of the visitor air traffic is destined for the Cooperstown area, you can guess where much of the $3.1 million is going.

Since 1998, the city has contracted with Clipper Aviation to run the airport. Clipper, which is being paid $51,000 in this final year of its contract, is responsible for daily operations, selling fuel and maintaining the facility and grounds. It also has a full-time flight instructor.

Brian Curpier, who heads Clipper Aviation, says the airport has been busier than ever and continues to provide a valuable service to the city and the area.

It benefits the city and its businesses in many ways, he said, and is used by flights associated with the hospital, baseball camps, the colleges, tourism and, yes, Wal-Mart, too.

"There is a big growth potential for the airport," he said.

City officials said Clipper was the only respondent to a recent Request for Proposals to operate the airport again next year, and the city was evaluating that proposal along with other options. Mayor Richard Miller this week said those options include continuing as is, reducing the facility to minimum FAA requirements and turning the airport over to a private operator.

At a fiscal summit shortly after he took office in 2010, Miller raised the possibility of selling the airport to help the city balance its budget, an idea supported at that time by at least one alderman. "I would like to see us get that into private hands," Alderman Maureen Hennessy said.

The mayor this week said he thought the city has "no reason to be in the airport business," but added that "because we have accepted FAA money over the years, we are contractually obligated to keep the airport open. My objective is to do that at the lowest possible cost."

Yes, over the past decade the city has been awarded about $2.7 million in grants, including the one recently announced, from the state and federal governments. Two-thirds of that amount was for a new runway.

Despite the upgrades, I'm not sure who would want to take the airport over, since the city is losing money on it. Because the airport benefits such a wide area, including the entire county, maybe paying for it should be something shared by the county, and the town of Oneonta

Given the city's bleak fiscal outlook as outlined by the mayor last year, it does make sense for the city to review its airport options.

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor of oneontatoday.com. He can be reached at brunswick@earthling.net.