Sunday, October 14, 2007

Fayetteville's Airport (Part II)

It wasn’t a scientific sample, but at church this morning I asked seven people, “How is the best way to get to the airport?” Six said take I-540 to Lowell, and one said go up Highway 112 through Elm Springs. No one said the airport was on 71 South between the Fayetteville Country Club and that junk yard in Greenland. If they even knew that Fayetteville had an airport, they certainly didn’t use it or even think about it.

None of them knew that it was a drain on the city treasury. The 2007 Fayetteville budget anticipated an operating loss of $82,920 before depreciation of $1.5 million, for a net loss of $1,582,920.00. I doubt that they know we are paying 2.5 city employees for administration and three for maintenance operations, with expenditures of $617,220 for administration and $270,800 for maintenance. To excuse this by saying it is not from the general fund is to pretend it is okay to waste public money.

Ray Boudreaux, the city’s airport director, said in February that operations have had a steady drop, but no one can figure out why. “We’re just going to have to try and figure it out,” he said, inspiring little confidence that he could. “There’s [sic] too many variables to figure anything out precisely.” At the same time, Ray said thanks to two state grants and a $700,000 loan from the city, they were breaking ground on a $1.3 million hanger project to serve the business needs of Million Air and Sky Venture. In the latest available Management Report, he admits that “the second quarter continues the dramatic reduction in operations” and that “air taxi (charter) numbers are way down, off nearly 50% in the first six months of the year.” Yet, we’re likely to see a proposed budget for 2008 that continues to fund this mysterious loser.

Why does the city continue to funnel our money into this financial sinkhole? Because a few very influential people benefit from the luxury of having an airport paid for by the city. Back in 1999, after the Chamber sold us out to the Northwest Arkansas Council, they gave Mayor Hanna a marketing plan calling for the city to promote the airport as a "stopover" destination for corporate jets. The city appears to have taken their orders and is continuing to do what they want to comfort the jet set.

UA coaches and administrators making six figures use the airport so they don’t have to drive to Little Rock or fly coach class from XNA. Some corporations like Superior Industries, that also expects citizens to subsidize their water and sewer rates, keep a plane there for executive flights. Executive Aviation Services provides luxury air travel targeting the business traveler and high-end consumer that "requires a nimble and timely response to their travel needs." Another tenant, Flying Investments LLC will sell you 1/16th of a jet for $275,000 plus an annual maintenance fee of $57.396 for 50 hours of flight time if you buy the gas. The average citizen who foots the bill for operating the airport gets nothing from this corporate boondoggle.

The airport's new mission statement says it is supposed to “foster economic growth and commerce.” To accomplish that, they have a master plan to spend $62 million in a program that will include a fancy golf course, an extended runway to accommodate bigger jets, an airport hotel, and million-dollar homes with attached hangers and runway access. Again, I see nothing in that foolishness that does anything for the citizens of Fayetteville, except use their tax dollars for the personal benefit of those few who own or charter corporate jets. If this is such a good deal, why don’t we see private enterprise getting into the airport business? Because they have a Mayor and City Council that get the taxpayers to provide it for them.

The city claims that the depreciated value of the airport land and buildings is $14.66 million, but it would likely bring much more on the market. If the city sold it and put that in passbook savings, we’d be way ahead of what’s happening now. If they transferred it to the Housing Authority to partner with Habitat for Humanity, we could solve our problems with affordable housing. But that would mean that corporate executives and university bureaucrats wouldn’t have us subsidizing their flying follies, and the convenience of travel by private jet would require them to drive to Springdale.

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