Cape open to airport partnership or taxing authority to help defer costs

Sunday, June 21, 2009
Bruce Loy is airport manager at the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport. (Fred Lynch)

Operating Cape Girardeau Regional Airport requires $500,000 or more a year from the city general fund, an expense that can be seen either as the cost of having a prime economic development tool or as a perpetual drain on an already stretched budget.

When the Cape Girardeau City Council met in a retreat in March, one idea floated as a way to relieve pressure on finances was to find partners to take on part of the airport expense.

But the sales pitch was never made by city leaders, and last week none of the leaders of entities likely to be approached said they had the money or inclination to take up Cape Girardeau's burden.

However, there's another path to the same objective -- creation of an airport authority. Under Missouri law, the Cape Girardeau County Commission could establish the authority and call for an election to fill a seven-member board. With voter approval, the board could impose a property tax of up to 25 cents per $100 assessed valuation, enough to raise $2.5 million annually in Cape Girardeau County for airport operations.

Mitch Robinson, executive director of Cape Girardeau Area Magnet, said that would be a start, but to be a truly regional airport he would like to see either a multicounty airport authority, spreading the cost, or a multistate authority operating an airport to serve Cape Girardeau, Paducah, Ky., and Southern Illinois.

"The only way you would be able to develop some support and get past the no-money issue is by having expanded services," Robinson said. "We have got to get better services."

Commercial passenger service, which a few years ago was boarding almost 8,000 people per year on flights to St. Louis, has diminished to almost nothing due to repeated lengthy interruptions. A drop-off in general aviation traffic has also hurt airport revenue.

The airport budget for the coming year is $1.14 million, down from $2 million two years ago. But revenue is also down, leaving a projected deficit for the year of $378,000, a shortfall that doesn't look to be closed anytime soon.

Federal stimulus money is paying for a $1.6 million runway rehabilitation project. That will cover several items on the airport's list for upgrades, airport manager Bruce Loy said. And with a master plan that is six years old, Loy said, it's time for another in-depth look at the airport's future.

"We need to look at where we want to go," Loy said. "We know we want to acquire a little more land and maybe go into the air cargo business."

But Loy doesn't like looking at his airport as an expense. Instead, he said, Cape Girardeau taxpayers should view it as an investment in the area's economic well-being. Every week, he said, executives of companies with local connections arrive in private aircraft. And the airport's rental hangars for locally owned private planes are full with waiting lists.

"If we reduce expenses, we reduce the services we provide to the aviation community," Loy said.

Even without the business generated by commercial passenger service, the airport is a vital tool to attract and retain area industries, Mayor Jay Knudtson said.

"If all the economic indicators didn't so blatantly show how critical an airport is to recruitment and a region, I think it is something we would be taking a long, hard look at whether it warrants further support," Knudtson said. "Really and truly from the first day I took office, it is one of the largest dilemmas I have had as mayor. It takes a tremendous amount of resources to run, and it is something that has undoubtedly and undeniably placed a financial burden on our city."

About 40 miles away, the Sikeston Memorial Municipal Airport is owned by the city of Sikeston. But its operations, with no commercial passenger service, are all privatized and Sikeston spends little on it, providing mowing and some minor maintenance, city administrator Doug Friend said. The Sikeston airport also received stimulus money, $2.1 million, to repave its runways.

Friend said there would be no sentiment in Sikeston for making the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport the home for area aviation. "Nine times out of 10 it comes up in conversations with companies," he said. "They want to know about quality of life. Airports are very critical to a local community's ability to go out and bring industry in."

Jamie Burger, presiding commissioner of Scott County, and Tim Porch, mayor of Scott City, both said there is no interest in helping pay for Cape Girardeau Regional Airport nor do they have the money.

"I would have to do a poll in the city to find out who it benefits, and I don't think I would get much response," Porch said.

Burger added that if Scott County helps Cape Girardeau, it would likely have to help Sikeston. Most Scott County business activity takes place in Sikeston, he noted. But he likes the location of both.

"It is a benefit to the citizens of Scott County and to the businesses of Scott County to have two airports located in our county," Burger said.

Cape Girardeau County Presiding Commissioner Gerald Jones said he, too, would plead poverty if the city came looking for money. But he's willing to listen to proposals for an airport authority, he said.

"We will consider anything," Jones said. "That airport is vital to us from a personal and industrial standpoint. We will consider any discussion."

Knudtson, who will leave office in April after eight years as mayor, said any changes will likely take place after he leaves office. The idea of an authority to take over the airport is appealing, he said.

"I would be ready to enter into any kinds of discussions tomorrow that would include development of an airport authority," Knudtson said. "I am just afraid I would be the only one at the meeting."


Pertinent address:

Cape Girardeau Regional Airport, Cape Girardeau, MO

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