Grand County is no longer considered an “economically distressed area” by the federal government and must now pay double the expected matching funds to receive a $12 million Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grant to expand the runway at Canyonlands Field Airport. Discussing potential funding streams to address the financial impact — which increases the matching requirement from $319,220 to $589,218 — members of the Grand County Council and the airport board said they hope to pursue a loan with Utah Permanent Community Impact Fund Board (CIB) as soon as possible.
“I think what you need to do is go to the CIB board, ask them to suspend their rules and you’ll have a decision in June,” said Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison. “ ... I think you’ve got a good shot at it, I really do.”
Airport manager Judd Hill said economically distressed areas are determined by the federal government using a combination of data from the U.S. Census Bureau as well as agencies such as the Bureau of Labor.
Such distinctions are important when it comes to FAA grants, Hill said, because they determine the percentage communities will pay in matching funds. Stripped of its economically distressed area status several weeks ago, Grand County must now pay 4.6 percent of the FAA grant, instead of 2.5 percent.
“By a shift in our local economy as perceived by our federal government, we’re no longer economically distressed and you can see it changes the FAA’s allocation for funding,” Hill told the council Jan. 31.
Although Grand County is likely to move forward with a loan request from the CIB for that match requirement, there was some discussion at the Jan. 31 meeting about a “Plan B” if that falls through.
“What we know is that the airport is an enormous economic engine for tourism ... so the question is whether or not the council could adopt a Plan B that would essentially borrow the money from the travel council instead of the CIB,” said airport board member Bob Greenberg.
Grand County Clerk/Auditor Diana Carroll suggested that the Plan B funding stream come from tourism, recreation, culture, and convention (TRCC) taxes.
However, Carroll noted that many government agencies have already supported the development of a regional airport in Moab, adding that the county has a good shot continuing with state funding streams.
“Grand County, the FAA, [and] the state have put millions of dollars into this and I don’t think there’s any need to step back,” Carroll said. “We need to proceed.”
In the spring of 2015, Grand County decided to upgrade and widen the Canyonlands Field runway after Essential Air Service provider SkyWest announced the phasing out of their 30-passenger turbo prop planes for 50-passenger CRJ 200 jets, which are too large for the current runway.
Greenberg and others surmise that such phasing out of smaller planes to larger planes is part of a wider trend happening across all commercial air service providers.
“SkyWest ... promised us they would never abandon their 19-seaters and less than a year later, they moved ahead,” Greenberg said. “And that will continue to happen because the economics dictate it. [With] one pilot, one copilot and one engineer you can fly 50 people instead of 19.”
Canyonlands Field is now served by Boutique Airlines, which uses single-engine planes carrying eight or nine passengers.
By widening the runway, airport board member Bill Holly said Grand County will have a better ability to attract larger carriers.
“This kind of removes the binding force,” Holly said. “Now we can go to United, or Frontier, or American. We want to get to a major carrier. This opens that door for those others and makes it not just a SkyWest world.”
After securing matching funding for the FAA grant, Hill said “the hope” is to begin runway construction in December/January, in time for a new air service contract by April 2018.
However, while the winter slow season might be the best time to complete the project, Hill said it’s the “worst time” to pour asphalt.
“Trying to coordinate this with when we could get jet service — that would be April -[we’re] shooting for [getting] that pavement done starting in the middle of March, because then it’ll get paved and painted,” Hill said. “So it’s going back to starting the construction generally speaking sometime at the very end of December or January of next year.”
Although there are some hurdles to the construction and the financing of the airport runway project, both the county council and the airport board expressed consensus that investing in the airport is central to the healthy growth of the community.
In attendance at the Jan. 31 meeting were representatives from the Moab Area Travel Council. Travel Council Executive Director Elaine Gizler said the airport is about more than just bringing tourists to town, it will also serve as a catalyst to future economic development.
“I think we have to think beyond tourism,” Gizler later told The Times-Independent. “Yes, we have tourism sustaining us economically right now, but in the next 10 years I think we need a combination of the tourism coupled with some great economic development for businesses to locate here so we have people working and employed twelve months a year.”
But in order to develop the airport to that point, Hill said some other necessary projects must happen. He described the upcoming terminal expansion, additional staff support, as well as other infrastructure projects as future costs to the county.
“This is huge — we absolutely need this upgrade ... to bring in commuter jets. But it is not the only project that we need yesterday. There’s another dozen that we needed yesterday and there’s going to be another two dozen more we need tomorrow,” Hill told the council. “ ... I don’t mean to scare you I just want to inform you that as important as this runway upgrade is, and what it will mean to our community, there will be additional costs associated with growing an airport.”
Council member Chris Baird asked Hill to put together a report on the future needs of the airport. Although investing in the airport’s infrastructure is not likely to end soon, Baird said he hopes the economic growth it generates will pay for any future costs.
“The hope is if you grow the economy, you grow your revenue and it ends up paying for itself,” Baird said, noting that the county traditionally uses TRCC revenue to pay for capital projects at the airport. “ ... If the airport upgrade works and it does develop the economy, we’ll see revenues respective to that which will continue to pay for it.”