Thursday, June 06, 2013

GUEST COMMENTARY: Columbia Regional Airport (KCOU) needs our business more than tax money -Columbia, Missouri

 Thursday, June 6, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT


I was glad to see George Kennedy's May 31 column, "Airport upgrade would be a costly mistake." I agree with him on several points, if not for different reasons.

The Columbia Regional Airport has indeed had commercial passenger air service come and go in recent years.

Since the good old days of Ozark Air Lines, federal subsidies for service to small airports have dropped off.

Then local public subsidies emerged to entice American Airlines to town, which only prompted Delta Air Lines to fly off for good, though Delta claimed it was losing money here anyway — it's hard to say.

That's because, short of maybe health care, the airline industry is one of the most darn complicated businesses there is. Nonetheless, COU (the Columbia airport) was largely neglected by city hall for a long time, so I'll hand it to Mayor Bob McDavid for taking a crack at it.

After cramming for Airlines 101, McDavid negotiated with airline executives, even wrangling up a revenue guarantee fund to (as Kennedy describes) "persuade or bribe" them.

Another business deal

Personally, I prefer calling it a pre-bailout fund. The city has essentially coordinated a business-loss insurance pool for the benefit of some of the world's largest corporations.

And with this precedent, what new airline will come here without a equally lucrative deal? We have further distorted an already highly distorted market.

Compared to the revenue guarantee, this new $33.7 million "faith-based" terminal expansion proposal is an animal of only slightly different stripes. Still to facilitate big airlines' business. Still to satisfy the desires of local economic development interests. Still sold to help everybody and "create jobs," etc. Still paid for by taxpayers.

As the revenue guarantee had the public buy airline service via profit insurance, with the terminal expansion, the public would be committed to buying a facility that  relatively few people might ever set foot in.

Along with municipal government's operation of a Police Department, maintaining streets, sewer pipes, a water and electric utility, even recreation facilities, is running a globally competitive commercial airport among City Hall's core competencies?

Even former City Council candidate Bill Weitkemper wondered aloud, "If we didn't own it, would we buy it?" Of course not. The numbers being thrown around are crazy risky.

Facing weak competition

As far as COU's competition: Lambert-St. Louis International Airport is less of a hub anymore, and Kansas City is considering an unpopular remodel. At the rate the state is going, Interstate 70 could deteriorate in the coming years, so mid-Missourians might have difficulty driving to either competitor anyway.

But let's not aspire to win by default. Instead, if the public is going to own an airport at all, how about we try building community pride, taking a sense of ownership in the place?

It sure isn't as sexy, but we should create a culture that looks to use our airport first, and do so whenever practical. This is something you, dear reader, can do yourself. (Personally, I have two of the last three times I've flown somewhere).

Though we are stuck with the revenue guarantee for a while, let's at least learn from its anti-competitive handcuffs until it expires.

Don't stick taxpayers

While I feel sorry for the '60s-era terminal's shortcomings, if issuing revenue bonds based on future airport profits alone yields a lack of willing investors, that would be a darn good gauge that taxpayers shouldn't be put on the hook for a costly mistake, either.

That means skipping (yet another) consultant's grandiose visions, instead looking to leverage local business willingness to donate money or donated/discounted design insight, construction materials and or labor, for a project we can actually afford.

It worked for Grant Elementary School's Eco School House, didn't it?

Mayor McDavid and architect Nick Peckham would make a fine team — I would show up for an airport painting/mulch day myself. Or perhaps an MU-based multidisciplinary project is in order to help get the job done?

One way or the other, we need a practical CoMo-sized solution, not the usual NYC one.

Steve Spellman hosts “The Mid-Missouri Freedom Forum” on KOPN/89.5 FM on Tuesday from 5 to 6 p.m.


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