RTA ponders new approach to air program
Would businesses pitch in to boost capacity?
Originally published 2013-01-24
Local leaders may be looking to a neighboring tourism market as a model for boosting financial support of wintertime tourism in the Gunnison Valley.
During the Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority’s (RTA) monthly meeting Friday, board members agreed to explore the possibility of obtaining more buy-in from the local business community.
Crested Butte Mayor and RTA board member Aaron Huckstep first floated the idea. He noted efforts being undertaken by a nonprofit group — called the EGE Air Alliance — to increase businesses’ participation in bringing flights to the Eagle County Regional Airport in Gypsum.
EGE’s efforts in recent years have including funding from approximately 20 businesses in Eagle County. But the group is hoping to expand that number, and Huckstep questioned whether a similar approach to generating revenue for flights into the Gunnison Valley would be worthwhile.
“It’s a fair question to ask of whether or not a program like this could work in Gunnison County, or if people are willing to try and make it work?” he posed.
Much like EGE, the RTA and Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR) share the tab annually on flight “guarantees” — or payments made to airlines to cover their operating losses for flying here. Those flights bring thousands of visitors to the Gunnison Valley each winter, but the figure is declining.
At the same time, the total cost of airline guarantees has continued to climb — meaning that CBMR and the RTA have struggled to maintain flight service even close to that of previous years.
For example, in 2009, total guarantees were $900,000. Last year, they totaled more than $1.7 million, and part of the tab was picked up by entities other than the RTA and CBMR. And this year’s winter airline program is relying on additional contributions from local governments to make it work.
While total guarantees are only paid if seats go empty and the airlines experience losses, historically the Gunnison Valley hasn’t been able to fill planes to a degree that avoids such losses.
Flight consultant Kent Myers estimated Friday that the current winter season would end with about 20,000 visitor arrivals to the Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport. Four years ago, the figure was 28,000.
For the RTA and CBMR, that means maintaining the status quo — let alone expanding the airline program — may require seeking out new sources of revenue.
The pursuit of a potential tax increase has been discussed among RTA leaders in recent years as a means of addressing that issue. However, later in Friday’s meeting, board members were lukewarm to the idea of pursuing a tax-related question on this coming November’s ballot.
And directors of the chambers of commerce at both ends of the valley indicated that businesses leaders in the two communities currently oppose a tax increase.
“We go round and round and don’t really develop solutions in a timely enough manner that the private side can appreciate,” said RTA board member and Mt. Crested Butte Mayor William Buck. “That’s why I think we need private-side input.”
Chris Morgan, RTA board chair and fellow Mt. Crested Butte councilman, noted that the local transportation authority was formed more than a decade ago so that “we didn’t have to expect businesses to contribute.”
“If our goal is to generate more funding, if that’s what we decide to do, the only way we’ll ever get anyone to buy into it is telling them exactly what they’re going to get ...” he added. “And we’re going to have to deliver on it.”
RTA leaders agreed to discuss Huckstep’s idea for a new approach to funding with the organization’s Citizen’s Advisory Committee next month.
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org)