Thursday, July 18, 2019
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Should public funds be spent to guarantee airline seats or fill airline seats?

Local politicos from both ends of the valley recently tapped into their various pools of public money to help keep a jet flying from Houston to Gunnison this ski season. Keeping that jet route is important but their solution was to take the easy way out. Spending more and more tax money isn’t a sustainable action and now the politicians and the community in general need to begin figuring out how to really change the game.
With great hand wringing and some pontification, the local elected representatives all dipped into your public bank accounts and came up with $80,000 to help this coming winter’s air program. They all swore it wasn’t setting a precedent and wouldn’t happen a second time. It was a precedent and if the thinking doesn’t change, it will happen again.
So here’s a brief recap of why your county and municipal tax dollars were given to another taxing entity set up specifically to fund those airlines. The Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) and Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR) have been paying airlines to fly into Gunnison during the winter. This year, those two entities have promised to put up about $1.6 million to get American Airlines to fly from Dallas and United Airlines to fly from Houston. At the end of the day, the two entities were about $89,000 short in up-front guarantees for the coming year. CBMR is tired of being the main business to participate financially in the program and they want out. So the RTA board members (the three mayors, several council reps and two county commissioners) agreed to look for ways to cover the shortfall. They didn’t look very far.
They all spoke of how the air program benefited people living in the entire valley. Both the north and south ends of the valley need the people flying in here. Business across the board would suffer if the flights went away. All true.
So it might have made sense to use their leadership and persuasive skills to reach out to the business community for some support. In a tough economy, it would have been hard to pry some money from local businesses but entrepreneurs understand reality and likely would have coughed up some financial support. If not, it would have sent some sort of message to the local politicians.
But they instead went to their government budgets and found $10,000 (City of Gunnison), $20,000 (Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte) and $30,000 (Gunnison County) that will be contributed to the RTA. While Mt. Crested Butte used admission tax funds that are geared toward such projects, the others took it out of their general funds.
They all cited the need to work together and keep those flights coming in. Admittedly those are two important goals. And given the timing, perhaps this was the best strategy. It was certainly the easiest.
However, the RTA is set up to help address the air program need and it has the dollars this year. Granted, it has fewer dollars than it used to but the board did it to itself. The RTA board had knowingly chosen to draw down its reserves on expensive winter air programs in the recent past and now is paying the price. There is a bit of irony to see several of the self-proclaimed “conservatives” on the board seeking a government bailout for a government board. Spending town and county reserves to keep an RTA reserve isn’t, in my mind, a great use of shifting public dollars.

But that decision has left the barn and frankly, there is a bigger issue. Now those leaders need to commit themselves to the tougher task of developing a new paradigm. They need to truly address the winter people problem. The airline situation is killing small mountain resorts throughout the west, including a lot of bigger and more well-known ski towns than Crested Butte. So this equation of paying more and more every winter to get fewer and fewer flights into the valley won’t last much longer.
There’s not a simple answer. The reality is that we live in a bit of a remote place. People can’t do a Star Trek transport from Dallas to Third and Elk. It takes a plane, a bus or a car.
There is really one solution: Create More Demand.
The focus should be on product and making more people want to come here in the winter…and come back. People need to feel it is worth coming to the valley. They need to experience something they won’t find at easier-to-get-to ski resorts. They need to have a Crested Butte adventure and take home some unique stories and memories. I dislike the sense that we are starting to feel primarily like a summer resort with a ski area. Side Note: CBMR is killing it and growing in the summer. Time to energize those cold months.
The emphasis needs to perhaps shift from paying for airline seats to giving the people a reason to buy a ticket for those seats. Focus on expanding winter activities. Give them something to remember as soon as they step off the plane in Gunnison. Give people more and different aprés ski opportunities. Provide more opportunities for fun. Find the sweet spot of what a visitor pays for and what they get. In other words provide honest “value.” That hasn’t always been the case in recent years.
Make tourists want to come back again and again and share it with their friends. Get on the same page with the various marketing efforts and explain to people why coming to this valley and having an adventure is something they will treasure forever. But you need to get people to come back. That’s always been an issue. We need to give them a chance at adventure…at an experience unique to this place, not just any vanilla mountain resort.

If the politicians are so intent on working with CBMR and each other, they should collaborate on the demand problem. The municipalities aren’t going to open a cool after-ski bar but they can still contribute. For example, tax dollars can be spent to support consistent late-night bus service. The councils can provide interesting public art. Forget the July Fourth spat—they might consider putting on a good fireworks show downtown on some special winter weekends. They can spend some dollars and make the airport entry experience unique.
If our elected reps want to spend public funds to help the winter economy, look for long-term benefits that give tourists a reason to visit and then come back here.
Motivate people to fill those airline seats and no one will have to pay the guarantees—and then we will ultimately take care of both the supply and the demand problem.

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