Eagle County airport to go international? | AspenTimes.com

Eagle County airport to go international?

Lauren Glendenning
Vail correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

EAGLE COUNTY, Colo. ” A group of local business leaders and government officials met Tuesday to discuss ways to fund an international terminal at the Eagle County Regional Airport.

The group, the EGE Air Alliance, identified taxes as a way to fund the expanded air service.

Kent Myers of Airplanners, an Avon-based company that brings air service to airports to match communities’ needs, circulated an e-mail last week to local business leaders and government officials asking them to consider the funding possibilities for international flights as well as increased domestic service. Comparisons to the way taxes fund similar operations at other regional airports were suggested as models. Myers declined to comment on the meeting or the ideas discussed.

County Commissioners Sara Fisher and Peter Runyon said they spoke with Myers about a year ago about the funding possibilities, but Myers didn’t contact either commissioner for the Dec. 9 meeting.

Avon Town Manager Larry Brooks was one of the officials who received the e-mail that considered possibilities for the airport.

“The sooner we become aware of the discussions, the better we’re all served,” Brooks said. “We ought to have these discussions together. … I can’t think of a better way to proactively inform the community.”

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An international terminal and funding of customs would cost millions, Runyon said.

One way to fund it could be to create a new county tax or increase an existing one, said Avon Mayor Ron Wolfe, who e-mailed Myers on Thursday with some input on ways to fund the operation.

Myers’ e-mail detailed tax funding methods that other regional airports use, and it discussed a preliminary vision for the airport that could include funding for bonds to develop an international terminal that could support service to Europe, Canada, Mexico and South America.

The toughest part of adding international commercial flights to the airport is the Customs and Immigration component, Runyon said. At one point, Sen. Wayne Allard was discussing the idea of sharing customs officials with an Alaska town that has opposite offseasons as the valley, but the idea never panned out, Runyon said.

The Eagle County Regional Airport currently has one customs agent who works out of the Vail Valley Jet Center, which handles private jets. The Jet Center typically sees about 300 private international flights per year, most of which come from South America, Mexico and Canada, said Paul Gordon, president of the Jet Center.

The goal for the airport as a whole, he said, is to make it an international airport.

“We’d like to get (international) people to fly here directly without having to stop elsewhere,” he said. “That entails building an international terminal that would house custom agents.”

Tax increases are a tough sell, Wolfe said.

“It has to contribute clearly and measurably to the economic success of the county,” he said. “Having a viable airport is a good thing for the resort industry.”

Wolfe likes the example of impact fees ” fees that governments charge to specific groups to set aside funds. Wolfe said it’s fairer to charge those who would be the beneficiaries of whatever the tax funds ” in this case, the international travelers.

“You could say a per capita landing fee for airlines, but then the airlines would say they weren’t the beneficiaries,” Wolfe said. “You cannot unfairly tax property owners. … It’s going to be a pretty philosophical question.”

Some other options include increasing lodging taxes, but then the tax fails to reach the timeshare owners and the second-home owners who would also benefit from having a local international airport.

A general sales tax could work, but Wolfe said it’s a bad idea for locals who already struggle with the high cost of living here. Another option would be a property tax that, if possible, could target a specific district made up of rental lodging, timeshares, resort companies and those who make profits from air travelers. Wolfe said he isn’t sure that is even possible, though.

And before the county and federal government could spend millions to build the necessary improvements and additions to the airport, they have to figure out if there’s even a market for an international airport here.

Gordon thinks there is, but he’s just not sure it’s now.

“I’m certain it will happen here eventually,” he said. “We’re not there yet. A lot depends on the markets throughout these next couple of years.”

Fisher, after learning Thursday that there have been more recent discussions about adding international travel to the airport, said she’s hoping to get a work session scheduled for the beginning of the year to discuss the prospects.

Runyon also said a discussion is appropriate.

“Certainly, more and more, we’re becoming an international destination,” Runyon said. “So whatever we can do to facilitate people coming here. … We’re always looking at options.”

lglendenning@vaildaily.com

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