Following an intense fire season, what’s next for Glenwood Springs’ airport? | VailDaily.com
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Following an intense fire season, what’s next for Glenwood Springs’ airport?

Charlie Wertheim, Glenwood Springs Post Independent

In terms of news, the Glenwood Springs Municipal Airport has been getting a lot of air time lately.

It was used as a helibase during the Grizzly Creek Fire. It’s been the subject of a study last year and one this year. And it is on the path of the South Bridge project.

There have been varying opinions over the years about the best use of 63 acres of city-owned land and the airport’s value to the community.

“Regardless of what the future holds for the airport the community and the Roaring Fork Valley need to ensure that we are always able to have access to an area [from which] we can stage emergency personnel, where Flight For Life can refuel, and helicopters can stage from when the next wildfire happens,” said Mayor Jonathan Godes, who is also the council liaison to the city Airport Commission.

Classic Air Medical has been staging medical helicopters out of the airport since 2016.

Local users

The airport doesn’t get a lot of use by locals.

City engineer Terri Partch determined that there are 29 long-term users of Glenwood’s airport based on hangar leases, long-term (a month or more) tie-down fees and yearly off-airport user fees. 

Very few live in Glenwood.

“Of the 29 long-term users, nine of them reside in Glenwood Springs,” Partch said in an email.

Budget

The airport is a city enterprise fund, meaning it receives no money from the city and is intended to meet its costs from fuel sales, leases and fees. 

Fuel revenues and expenditures are relatively stable, but the Grizzly Creek Fire changed that for 2020.

The original budget forecast for the fund was a decrease of about $14,000, largely attributable to another $11,000 going towards a fuel pedestal.

Because of fire operations at the airport, the current projection is an increase of about $56,000. Such an influx of money from fire operations is atypical.

“Fire operations added that revenue, and, yes, it is unusual,” city COO Steve Boyd said in an email.

A better comparison for estimating next year is looking back to 2019 revenues and expenditures. Fuel sales are the largest item on the revenue side — $151,812 in 2019 and estimated to be about the same in 2021.

The largest expense is purchasing that fuel, $110,871 in 2019 and estimated to be $135,000 in 2021.

That $25,000 change in fuel costs is responsible for about half of a projected decrease in the Airport Fund balance at the end of 2021. Another $25,000 in 2021 is going to construction of a fuel pedestal.

Helibase

The airport was used as a helibase for fighting the Grizzly Creek Fire between Aug. 14 and Sept. 1, and it was shut down for two weeks of that time, interim airport manager Tim Hasselmann said.

Greg Rippy, chairman of the city Airport Commission and a pilot, said in August that the commission and the airport manager agreed to close the airport to users to help with fire protection. 

“While it’s an inconvenience to the airport users … it’s still a matter of community. What’s more important: being able to fly your aircraft exactly when you want to or doing the best that we can to save Glenwood Canyon” and structures in various places. “It’s a minor sacrifice,” Rippy said.

Airport officials did want to recoup lost revenue, though.

“It’s not about how are we going to make money off this, it’s how can we be made whole. … We don’t want to make money off a crisis,” Rippy said.

Rippy said the Glenwood airport is unique in its ability to serve as an airbase. 

“You can see that [the airport has] got 3,000 feet of runway to be able to stage nine helicopters. You can’t do that anywhere else. You can’t take a baseball field, you can’t take a hay field, because we’ve got hard surface here for them,” Rippy said.

Eagle and Rifle airports are too busy with other operations, he said.

Statistics provided by Hasselmann show that during helibase operations, helicopters carried 50,010 pounds of cargo, 224,600 gallons of fire retardant and 1.4 million gallons of water.

South Bridge

The city is making steps toward the eventual construction of South Bridge, a route heading south near the airport and crossing the Roaring Fork River to connect with Highway 82.

“South Bridge is on the verge of being signed by [the Colorado Department of Transportation] and [the Federal Highway Administration]. … That will be a huge milestone in the South Bridge project,” Partch said at the Oct. 1 City Council meeting.

After years of study, the chosen route — modified preferred alternative 10b — cuts across the southern tip of the runway. 

Or under it. The plan includes a tunnel running underneath that portion of runway.

City engineer Terri Partch says the current estimate for the entire project is $48 million, of which $6.2 million would go to the tunnel.

“Eliminating the tunnel would save money,” Partch said.

It would also shorten the runway, which a recent study found to be too short to meet state objectives.

CDOT study

CDOT’s Division of Aeronautics included Glenwood Springs Municipal Airport in its 2020 Colorado Aviation System Plan.

The study included a “report card.”

“The report cards analyze how each airport meets the facility and service objectives established based on the role/classification of each airport in the system. This will be used by CDOT as airports ask for state funding for various projects,” Pam Keidel-Adams, project manager for consultant Kimley-Horn, said in an email.

The runway’s 3,305 feet did not meet the 2020 objective, though a specific desired length for Glenwood’s airport was not given.

The airport failed to meet objectives in more categories than it met them, including runway width, runway strength, runway markings, tie-down space, and not having a terminal.

The study identified about $6.9 million worth of projects for Glenwood’s airport.

“The need for projects will be determined by the airport since they own/operate the airport and decide which projects to do based on numerous factors, including available funding. … We combined system plan and airport projects to determine total costs,” Keidel-Adams said.

The study also performed an economic analysis of Glenwood’s airport. It includes on and off-airport spending and for each the multiplier of income respending, totaling $10 million in payroll, $18.3 million in value added and $36.7 in business revenues.

“Value added reflects a company’s or industry’s contribution to Colorado’s Gross Regional (or State) Product (a local concept synonymous with Gross Domestic Product). It includes all labor compensation, profits, and business taxes paid,” Keidel-Adams said.

While the numbers are impressive, it doesn’t mean all that money is being spent in Glenwood Springs.

“None of the numbers in the document represent only what’s spent in Glenwood Springs per se since we used statewide multipliers that determine the supplier sales and income re-spending of the airport’s direct impacts throughout the state,” Keidel-Adams said. “I would say direct business revenues is the closest to the impact only on Glenwood Springs.”

Direct business revenues totaled about $17.9 million.

Gruen Gruen study

Another study completed last year by Gruen Gruen + Associates was commissioned by the city as part of its Airport Property Scenario Planning Project.

The three primary scenarios for the airport included expanded aviation, a mixed-use village and a residential village.

Godes said there are currently no plans to use the airport land for housing.

“There’s been no developer, no plan, no study that’s contemplated affordable housing to the best of my knowledge. … People in the community might be having that conversation, but I’ve never heard it. There’s nothing official with that,” he said.

Professional opinion

While it’s understandable that area pilots — whether from Glenwood or not — would be in favor of keeping the airport an airport, Rifle/Garfield County airport manager Brian Condie is also a fan of the idea.

“I would like to see it stay open for sure, but I don’t know all the ins and outs or what’s best for Glenwood Springs,” he said. “If they keep it open I’m happy, if they decide to close it I won’t be happy but I’ll support them for sure 100%.”

He suggested that its recent use as a helibase emphasizes its value.

“This last fire season should show the importance of having that asset close,” he said.

cwertheim@postindependent.com


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