Durango-La Plata County Airport needs renovation, but the tens of millions it may require are raising major questions for public officials.
The airport terminal, parking lots and tarmac all need to be expanded. In order to meet those needs, it will take at least $79 million for the least expensive alternative, according to consultants from Jviation. These consultants have presented three alternatives, all with a second phase that could be built when the need arises.
Durango City Council and La Plata County Board of County Commissioners plan to consider the options at a meeting in February and give the consultants formal feedback about how to go forward.
“I’m not convinced the three plans they presented are the best for La Plata County,” Mayor Sweetie Marbury said.
She has expressed concerns before about financing the project through a property or sales-tax increase, which she would not support.
The consultants have not presented possible financing options for the project yet, which troubles her.
“They don’t want to talk about money right now; it’s really all about money,” Marbury said.
For those who fully support the project, it also is about money, but they are focused on the potential payoff.
The airport generates about $282.3 million a year in economic activity, according to a 2013 Colorado Department of Transportation report. This number encompasses those who are employed by the airport, businesses supported by the airport and tourists who come into the community, among other factors.
Proponents argue airport improvements would boost travel and encourage more growth.
“The airport expansion is first and foremost about retaining and expanding upon the economic benefits that the airport provides,” Councilor Christina Rinderle said.
The number of passengers boarding in Durango has been growing steadily since 2003, when 87,000 boarded planes in Durango.
By comparison, 177,917 people have boarded a plane from January through November this year in Durango, according to airport reports. This is a key metric in airport planning, said Airport Director Kip Turner.
Without expansion, the airport could lose air service, passengers and the economic benefits could shrivel, said Sherri Dugdale, an assistant to the city manager.
But Marbury and others contend that less-expensive options for the airport must exist, and opting not to build one of the three options will not bring horrible consequences.
“I’m not convinced a Cadillac proposal is what’s best for Durango,” she said.
She believes visitors will still be drawn to the area, even without a major expansion.
Attracting new service
Adding space for planes to park overnight and other improvements could help attract more service, according to Turner and the consultants.
However, the airline industry is volatile and many air carriers have come and gone through the years along with high and low passenger numbers, said Ron Dent, the former airport director.
“You could have a significant drop in traffic even though demand is quite strong,” he said.
While Dent said he respected Turner’s approach to airport planning, in his experience, the airport growth was at the mercy of factors outside local control.
“A very conservative approach to growth in the airport is pretty important based on what the industry is doing,” Dent said.
With few airline carriers left, if one pulled out of Durango, there would be few other carriers that could replace it. However, he does see a future of strong demand for flights from the local region.
One priority among many
Several other projects are potential or certain contenders for public funding, including a $55 million sewer plant expansion; a half-cent sales-tax reauthorization; county road and bridge improvements; and a science, theatre, education arts and music park in Durango.
It raises important questions for public officials about how to balance priorities. County Commissioner Julie Westendorff is hoping to find how several public projects can all be compatible from a financing standpoint. One of the possible options, in her mind, is phasing in the airport expansion over time.
Across the state, many airports need renovation, but state revenues for airport improvements are falling, said T.K. Gwin, the grant program manager for CDOT’s Division of Aeronautics.
The division distributes funding for airport construction projects that comes from a tax on jet fuel. But as the price of gas has fallen, so has the money available for grants – and many projects are already underway, he said.
“We can’t help significantly in solving the problem,” said Scott Storie, an aviation planner with the division.
Consultants from Jviation are planning to present alternatives for funding the airport project in the coming months, and this may drive decisions.
“Ideally, we would make the larger short-term investment in a new terminal complex to achieve long-term savings and future flexibility,” said Durango City Councilor Dick White. “But we don’t live in an ideal world, and fiscal realities may result in a different choice.”