Vail Daily column: Payback from airport program looks promising
July 19, 2015
Squeezing revenue out of the airport may be a ridiculously easy way for Eagle County residents to make more money.
We know the valley's economy is pulled by a single horse — luxury outdoor fun. We know ours is an especially beautiful breed of outdoor fun. It is a real race horse.
Sure, we export some medical services outside the county, a few hamburgers on the hoof, some drywall, some intellectual property and certainly we export water. But in Eagle County, tourism is a thoroughbred among ponies.
People fly in, they have a great time, they spend a little bit, then they leave. A few stay and become our friends and neighbors.
More people flying in means more money flowing through the valley. Simple. As local experts Chris Romer of the Vail Valley Partnership and Gabe Shalley of Vail Resorts related to me, Vail vacationers are calling for more air service.
Eagle County is a little place. Direct flights to little places run big financial risks. It has become normal for small destinations to offer minimum revenue guarantees to airlines.
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In fact, all commercial flights to Eagle County Airport have been started with minimum revenue guarantees from local governments and businesses. Flights have typically been weaned off of the subsidy after three to four years.
Interstate 70 is a transportation choke point. When the driving is rough, our visitors who are on the road suffer. They prefer their thrills on the slopes, not on a mountain highway.
Rail is a non-player. Amtrak brings only slightly more tourist traffic to Eagle County than the number of verified bigfoot sightings. Rail from the Front Range, high speed or otherwise, is still financially masochistic.
So we are back to the airport as perhaps the best route to increasing community incomes. The airport program is lightweight. By government standards, the money is small. There is no massive borrowing, no giant work force. It is flexible, too. Turn it on, turn it up, turn it down, turn it off as circumstances change.
Romer, Shalley and their team are tinkering with the idea of funding this promising program with tax money. They want a bigger, more reliable revenue stream.
There is a hitch, though. Local governments spend more than $22,000 annually on behalf of the average Eagle County family already. The have-mores pay more. There are some soft spots in the accounting, but it is tough to deny that this is life-altering money.
Beyond the tax issue is another big question: How much prosperity do you want? Lots of locals feel friction between a bigger economy and popular environmental concerns. More visitors naturally means more people milling about, busier slopes and shops and more buildings. It does not mean, though, bulldozers straddling the summit of Holy Cross.
Some people easily reconcile the tension between, one, the eco-idealism symbolized by local mountain landscapes and, two, the economic activity so helpful to household financial security with, three, Louis Jordan-like clarity: "Is you is or is you ain't … " for more prosperity, in this case. Most of us are not so clear initially. Some people struggle so badly that their craniums spontaneously explode.
You have watched it before. You expect mind-melting detonations of emotive energy. You expect instantaneous eruptions of petite mushroom clouds. You expect these very pages to be thusly charred when issues such as the Meadow Mountain-Battle Mountain land swap come up. It is great entertainment. It is cud for the mind.
The eco issues raised by economic growth are often 100 percent legitimate. We also suspect that none among us is pure. Just being here might be a kind of eco original sin. Put a little weight on your decision-making scale to account for that. Just which side gets that weight is your call.
On the prosperity side, the payback from the airport program looks promising, potentially even mouth watering. More later, if the paper has space.
Obviously, more business is good for family finances. Ours is a narrow, specialized economy. It is vulnerable to aging demographics, a highly indebted world economy and the threat of global warming. Being a bit richer gives families a bit more resilience.
Further, better business adds to economic opportunities for young people. A stronger economy could add upward pressure to home values. Given our employment structure, it creates more income for recent immigrants. Vail Valley businesses take a bite out of both international poverty and global income inequality.
There are pros and cons. It is worth noodling through with your own original thought. Weigh the values you live by. Consider your possibilities. But don't nail down a position just yet, unless you do not mind pulling that nail later.
Vince Emmer is a financial analyst in Gypsum. He invites you to reach him at email@example.com.
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