Saturday, January 14, 2012

Long-term goals of St George Municipal Airport (KSGU) expansion still unfulfilled. St George, Utah.

ST. GEORGE - The St. George Municipal Airport made progress during its first year, but officials say it will take time before the airport fulfills promises of new destinations and significant economic expansion.

"The truest test of the airport is long-term," said Scott Hirschi, director of the Washington County Economic Development Council. "It's already had a positive effect, but it's going to continue to have a greater and greater effect on the economy and the community."

Since opening Jan. 12, 2011, the $160 million airport has experienced a rising number of passengers and hangar leases. The airport saw nearly 68,000 passengers in 2011, an increase of nearly 23 percent when compared against 2010 totals recorded at the city's old airport, said Airport Manager Rich Stehmeier.

He said that's particularly good news, considering the city projected only a 10 percent increase in passengers.

"It's pretty impressive this year that we've gone up that much," he said.

The number of hangar leases has also grown, going from 62 hangars at the old airport to 84 at the St. George Municipal Airport.

"We're going up in just about all our numbers," Stehmeier said. "That's pretty phenomenal."

Gary Sorensen, a travel agent with Morris Murdock Travel in St. George, attributed that rise in passengers to the improving economy and SkyWest Airlines offering jet service for the first time in St. George.

"It made a huge difference for the people traveling," he said. "People are more attracted to the jet and are more willing to fly out of St. George than they were before."

He added, however, there is still a lot of unfulfilled potential. While the airport's current flights to Salt Lake City and Los Angeles offer opportunities for hundreds of connecting flights, Sorensen estimated that at least 80 percent of his customers still choose to fly out of Las Vegas.

"I don't believe the airlines understand how many people are actually leaving for Las Vegas," he said. "The prices to L.A. and Salt Lake are pretty decent, but prices for connections to other places are quite a bit more expensive than Las Vegas."

SkyWest spokeswoman Marissa Snow said the airline has worked hard to keep prices competitive. SkyWest has been pleased with the passenger response at the new airport, she added, and the company expects more customers to use the airport once they discover how convenient it is.

"The effort was in place at the beginning to make sure the fares were competitive," she said. "The biggest thing is awareness. It's making sure people are aware of what they have here."

Once they do, officials say talk of flights to places like Denver, Phoenix, San Francisco and Dallas could start to become a reality.

"Those are things we'll be working out over the next couple of years," Stehmeier said. "But it's a process and it takes the whole community to get that."

Snow said SkyWest has continued to keep an eye on new destinations.

"We know it's something St. George city would like," she said. "The demand just needs to make sense."

As for the airport's promise of economic expansion, officials said the process could take time.

"As we mentioned from the get-go, we weren't building the airport for 2011 or 2012," said Assistant to the City Manager Marc Mortensen. "It's a long-term plan, and I think it will benefit the area for decades to come."

Hirschi said the airport has played a role in sparking the interest of businesses considering relocating to the area, but he added there's no set timeline on when those companies could move to the area.

"The effects are certainly there and measurable over time, but it's not specific to a calendar," he said.

Officials say, however, that some immediate economic benefits will be seen in March when the Thunder Over Utah Air Show comes to the airport. Headlined by the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, Thunder Over Utah is expected to draw more than 30,000 people over two days, giving an economic boost to the area and exposure to the airport.

"It's huge for the airport," Stehmeier said. "This will be like another Ironman (event) or (St. George) Marathon. It's on one of those kinds of scales for what kind of money it can bring into our community."

After a year of steady growth, officials say the airport is entering 2012 with momentum. It's only a matter of time, they say, before it begins to meet its potential.

"Things are constantly going up and improving," Stehmeier said. "The airport is on its way to do great things."


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