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Some question need for runway extension

April 04, 2004|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - Washington County Commissioner William J. Wivell has been at the forefront of those opposed to extending the main runway at Hagerstown Regional Airport, located north of town on U.S. 11.

Wivell said he's not convinced the project will draw the added businesses the commissioners were told would come to the county if the runway were long enough to handle jets with larger cargo and passenger loads. He's asked for a business plan, he said, but has not seen one. That's why he said he lobbied for development of a plan to use the runway extension to increase the county's tax base and better utilize the surrounding Foreign Trade Zone as one of the county's goals for this year.

Wivell's objections consistently have been echoed by Commissioner John C. Munson. When the first construction contracts were awarded March 16, Munson said, "I honestly cannot see this airport bringing the businesses in we've been told it would I don't think it's needed."

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"We always have a marketing plan," countered Airport Manager Carolyn Motz in an interview. Among the businesses already near the airport, "we're finding cell division going on right before our very eyes" as they expand and create new business, she said. "We know what the target market is."

She added that airport officials go through a yearly goal-setting session to update the airport's master plan. Pursuing the extension project, she said, "was not a shot in the dark. Aviation is a fickle industry, but we've obviously spent time and money taking a hard look at our business future before we ever take any money from the FAA."

The airport's master plan takes a 20-year comprehensive look at the airport's usage, projects future demands and includes a financial plan. The runway project is the final portion of the current plan, adopted in the late 1980s, to be completed, Motz said.

Marketing the airport


In tandem with the master plan, a marketing plan was developed and presented to the county commissioners in January 2002. It targeted six goals, one of which was to "support and complement the extension of Runway 09/27 due to the critical nature of the project to the future growth of the airfield," according to county commissioners' minutes from Jan. 22. All of these documents are available for the commissioners' review, Motz said.

Motz added that her staff already has started work on the county government's goal of building on the runway and the Foreign Trade Zone to increase the county's tax base.

"It's a very appropriate time for us to head into goals and objectives," she said.

The airport does enough business of its own to largely be self-supporting. Of its $1.47 million operating budget, Motz said the airport gets a county grant of $20,000 for airfield rescue services and $75,000 for business development.

That pays for, among other things, Greg Larsen, the airport's business development manager.

Larsen said at least one existing business wants to use Boeing 737s at the airport, and would base an older, larger corporate jet there if they could fill its tanks and take off fully fueled. But to take off with that added weight requires a longer runway. "They can't leave fully fueled," Larsen said. If they could, the airport could claim revenues from selling jet fuel and performing maintenance on the aircraft, he said.

"There were people waiting in the wings for (the extension) to really happen," Motz said. Since the first construction contract was awarded last month, "we've had numerous calls already," she said. "I think they were a direct result of the announcement."

One business calls every 60 to 90 days to check on the status of the runway project, Motz said. With the potential of a larger runway, she said, "suddenly we get more serious contenders for airfield space."

Seeking more carriers


Larsen also is courting additional passenger carriers for the airport, he said.

"We have the infrastructure in the terminal to accommodate as many as four carriers," he said. The terminal could add two more immediately, he added.

"This is all about matchmaking," he said. "We have to match the demand to what a carrier can provide."

If the runway were allowed to shrink, Motz said, "we wouldn't sell half the jet fuel we do now. We know we would lose business." Passenger service would be a thing of the past - the terminal would close, she said.

Even so, Wivell worries about adding the expense of this project to water and sewer debts the county already is paying.

"The bottom line is, the pot's only so big," he said. "With the water and sewer, we have an exit strategy. I don't see any exit strategy with this."

At one point last year, Munson even suggested that the county rid itself of the airport altogether. One consequence of doing so, however, is that the county likely would have to repay much of the money it has received from the Federal Aviation Administration over a 20-year period, FAA spokesman Jim Peters said.

Richard Phoebus, president and chief executive officer of the Hagerstown-Washington County Industrial Foundation Inc., said he understands the critics of the project. The need for added runway length, he said, "is a very difficult thing to understand."

But Phoebus, a former head of the county's Airport Advisory Commission, said "this is not the sewer plant. You could make these same arguments about building roads in the county.

"I think it's a reasonable risk."

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