Fifth Ward council candidates offer suggestions for airport expansion

Thursday, January 31, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:19 a.m. CST, Thursday, January 31, 2013
Susan "Tootie" Burns, Mark Jones and Laura Nauser are running for the Fifth Ward seat on the City Council.

COLUMBIA – The three candidates for the Fifth Ward seat on the Columbia City Council agree that Columbia Regional Airport needs an upgrade.

Susan "Tootie" Burns, Mark Jones and Laura Nauser are vying to win the Feb. 5 special election for the seat left open by Helen Anthony, who resigned late last year.

The three candidates had different suggestions on how to upgrade Columbia's air service.

  • Burns said she wants airline routes that will be maintained and used because regular service to hubs and ridership have been issues in the past.
  • Jones said that the city should invest in the airport as a community asset and that the city should have airlines demonstrate the profitability of service routes before offering revenue guarantees.
  • Nauser said the airport is important for business, but she would prefer using public money to create incentives for businesses rather than for airline revenue guarantees.

Obstacles to improving the airport

The city made upgrading the regional airport a priority in 2009 when it commissioned and approved a 20-year airport master plan that outlined $64 million worth of desired improvements. Many of the projects would be financed mostly by grants from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Missouri Department of Transportation.

Several obstacles have come up, though. The lengthening and widening of runways to accommodate larger planes is a significant part of the plan, but property owners with land bordering the airport have been reluctant to sell their land to allow that to happen.

Revenue guarantees for airlines providing passenger service are another issue. Revenue guarantees ensure airlines at least a minimum level of profit even if passenger numbers don't reach anticipated levels. The guarantees are considered risky but sometimes necessary.

City officials worked last year with local and regional government entities and with businesses to put together a two-year, $3 million revenue guarantee for American Airlines, which will begin round-trip flights to Chicago and Dallas-Fort Worth on Feb. 14.

The revenue guarantee angered Delta Air Lines, which rejected a city offer of a similar guarantee and will end its daily flights to Atlanta on Feb. 13.

City officials are also considering options for financing a significant upgrade to the airport's terminal building, which lacks the capacity to handle the number of passengers expected once American Airlines flights begin. Cost estimates for the renovation have been placed at around $17 million.

Mayor Bob McDavid has floated the idea of increasing the city's tax on hotel and motel rooms to finance the renovation. A year ago, he suggested the city could boost the tax to 7 percent; it now stands at 4 percent.

That idea, however, has met with persistent opposition from the Columbia Hospitality Association and the Missouri Travel Council. Both argue that lodging tax revenue should be reserved for projects to promote tourism and convention business and that higher lodging taxes could cost hotels and motels business.

Burns: Taxing tourism won't finance expansion

Burns said she wants to see certain conditions met before the city renovates the terminal building. "I would like to see routes fully utilized and ridership sustained before considering and figuring out how to pay for a new airport terminal"

Burns said that a lodging tax will not generate the tax revenue necessary to pay for terminal renovations.

"I would approve a 1-percent tax that would finance only a portion. And then maybe we look at a regional airport authority for cooperation with other communities," Burns said. "I would like nearby communities to share the cost and responsibility of financing and maintaining an airport."

Burns said the renovations to the airport are integral connecting the city and its residents to other parts of the country.

"I think that as Columbia grows, there is an expectation to have a working, viable airport," Burns said, adding that she believes there's been good progress. "I'm pleased there's movement to improve the runways — lengthen them — so we can land heavier planes."

Burns said American Airlines' service to Dallas-Fort Worth will be valuable. "If you can go to Dallas, you can go anywhere," she said.

Burns said she hopes American Airlines and Frontier Airlines, which provides flights to Orlando, Fla., do well and that regular use of those flights by city residents would help.

Jones: Airport must grow with city

Jones said that MU's role as the city's primary economic engine and its growth require a corresponding upgrade to the city's infrastructure.

"The airport is part of that, especially given that we are recruiting more students from Chicago than Kansas City," he said.

Jones called the airport an important community asset. "It allows us to lure other high-tech and quality companies to Columbia. It becomes a tie-breaker as companies select new locations."

Regular connections to hubs is important as the city tries to lure companies like  IBM, Jones said.

Regarding revenue guarantees, Jones said an airline should offer data on the profitability of routes — or the lack of — before the city issues a guarantee.

Jones has also said that a bond issue is the best and simplest way to finance renovations to the terminal building.

Nauser: Upgrade airport to attract business

Nauser said Columbia is fortunate to have St. Louis and Kansas City close by, but they're not close enough to rely on for air service.

"If you are in business, five hours spent driving on the road is a waste of time and productive energy." 

That's why a better airport is key to the city's effort to attract businesses, Nauser said.

"We would just be that more attractive for some of these outside large businesses, like the IBMs, or the data centers, or even the spin-offs from the university," she said. "We want to make Columbia as attractive as possible for any of their incubator business projects so they stay in Columbia rather than leaving for a better city."

Nauser said that during her time on the council large companies often looked at the airport when considering whether to locate here.

The council also should consider the future of tourism in Columbia, especially because MU has joined the Southeastern Conference, she said, adding that there are plenty of attractions in the region to draw tourist dollars.

"If we want to increase our tourism, we have to have a way for people to get here."

Nauser said she would like to see municipalities around Columbia contribute tax money to airport upgrades. Like Burns, she believes the city should explore the creation of a regional airport authority.

She said during a Columbia Chamber of Commerce forum that she would take "an everything approach" to funding a terminal project. That would include looking carefully at new and existing taxes.

Another goal, Nauser said, is connecting Columbia to hubs that offer international flights. The city manager and mayor should handle negotiations with airlines and keep the council advised. The council's role would be to approve contracts and revenue guarantees, Nauser said.

Nauser said she has been unhappy with the use of revenue guarantees for airlines. She would prefer to invest in business incentives.

"Whether we like them or not, we need to have incentives," Nauser said.

Read more on the Fifth Ward's special election. 

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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