Chicago flights good for the economy, stakeholders say

Thursday, September 13, 2007 | 4:17 p.m. CDT; updated 12:01 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Direct flights between Columbia Regional Airport and Chicago would have the potential to dramatically increase tourism revenue, bring more industry to the area and help local businesses streamline travel arrangements, local stakeholders say.

Columbia officials, through a partnership with MU, Jefferson City and the Tri-County Lodging Association in the Lake of the Ozarks area, are trying hard to establish commercial air service between Chicago and Columbia by creating a $2 million pool that would subsidize any airline providing the flights. If all goes as planned, Columbia and the mid-Missouri area could see an economic boost.

Lorah Steiner, director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, said one immediate impact of jet service to and from Chicago would be the ability to host regional conventions that draw 200 to 300 people.

“The thing we’re most excited about is, if we can do a great job filling the seats on those jets, if we’re fortunate and get an airline to give us service to a major hub, then we might be able to add flights and eventually carriers, and then we have an avenue to pursue the larger regional conventions,” Steiner said. “That changes the whole landscape of the convention market in Columbia.”

Columbia at this point pursues no regional or national conventions if they require jet service.

“It’s just an area in which we cannot compete,” Steiner said. “Jet service might not immediately get us the larger conventions, but at the moment, we can’t even compete with regional conventions.”

Larger conventions would pump a lot of money into the regional economy, Steiner said.

“I ask people to think about their own travel. It’s not just the hotel room that you spend money on. Most people will spend money in a retail store, on entertainment, in gas stations.”

Steiner emphasized the simplicity of tourism. “The wonderful thing about tourism is that it doesn’t require new roads or schools. It uses the existing infrastructure and labor force and leaves money behind.”

Local hotels already make about $70 million each year from overnight stays collectively, Steiner said. More than 1 million people come to Columbia from outside the market to shop, and more than 100,000 attend local conventions each year. Another 91,000 come to the region for exhibitions and livestock shows.

The benefits wouldn’t be limited to tourism. Bernie Andrews, president of Regional Economic Development Inc., said direct service to a major hub like Chicago could be a big draw for companies looking for a good location.

“Companies look to locate in areas where there is good air service,” he said. “We could see more projects considered for the mid-Missouri area than they have been in the past.”

Andrews said jet service would also benefit existing businesses by making travel around the country easier and more efficient. Joe Moseley, vice president at Shelter Insurance, said Shelter would welcome flights to and from Chicago. Shelter employs more than 1,400 agents and provides service across 14 states.

“One of the major trade associations with which we do business is officed in Chicago, so we have a number of employees who fly there fairly often,” Moseley said. But the company seldom uses Columbia Regional Airport because its flight schedules fail to meet its travel needs.

Greg Cecil of the Airport Advisory Board believes that with greater opportunity to bring people to Columbia comes greater opportunity to earn money. “I think any time you improve the air service, it’s a chain reaction of events.”

Cecil noted that increased sales tax revenue would be one benefit. When people fly to St. Louis and rent cars to get to Columbia, for example, the taxes they pay benefit St. Louis, not Columbia. Flying directly into Columbia would solve that.

The city has been silent about whether it is pursuing flights to Chicago O’Hare International or to Midway. Cecil said both would have their advantages. O’Hare would be a great destination for connectivity, but Midway would be more practical for passengers who planned to stay in downtown Chicago. He also noted interest in flying to other cities.

“There’s a lot of interest in going to a lot of different places,” he said. “Will Chicago benefit everybody?”

It is estimated that Columbia’s city government will spend $809,993 on travel and training this fiscal year, about $100,000 less than originally budgeted. The proposed budget for fiscal 2008 allots $921,130 for local government travel and training, an increase of 1.7 percent from 2007. Travel and training accounts for a tiny 0.25 percent of 2008’s $362 million budget.

City Finance Director Lori Fleming said she doesn’t know whether additional air service would make local government travel any more efficient.

“I don’t know that we’re doing it as a benefit for the city officials,” she said. “We’re doing it as a benefit for the community.”

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