Getting private business more involved
A new organization is forming in the valley to help shore up the air service in the county through the private business sector. Molly Eldridge, the president of the Gunnison County Association of Realtors president, came up with the idea of forming the valley Air Alliance this past summer. Part of the reason is to help get private businesses involved and give them a tax credit reward for doing so.
“The idea is for businesses to support the local air program,” Eldridge told the Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority September 19. “Donations made to the effort would be eligible for a tax credit, which is more attractive than a tax write-off.”
A tax credit would save half the donation through state and federal taxes, so a $100 donation could earn a $25 state tax credit and a $25 federal tax credit.
“That is a big difference for donors,” Eldridge said.
The Air Alliance would be set up under Colorado enterprise zone regulations meant to enhance economic development in a specific area. The application for the enterprise zone approval would be made through Region 10 (a 501C3 non-profit organization “offering public programs in support of 18 local communities and six counties in western Colorado”). It is hoped that approval will be gained by October 10.
“This is a board that will find its own way,” said RTA executive director Scott Truex. “Down the road in the future the Air Alliance might be the entity that does the actual contracting with the airlines. But that is way in the future. Right now it is meant to focus on fundraising and education. This could be a good entity to gather private sector dollars.”
“The air program is currently a two-pronged deal and this could be a way for the larger community to think about it,” Eldridge said.
“It gives a third leg to the stool with the RTA and Crested Butte Mountain Resort,” said RTA chairperson Paula Swenson. “Having community members there really helps.”
“The tax credits are the bait on the hook,” said RTA board member Jonathan Houck.
“Developing more partners with air is beautiful for the entire community. This creates a point organization for businesses to donate to.”
“A lot of the businesses here would love to see the air program improve,” said Eldridge.
“I am excited with the idea of private business getting involved with fundraising,” said RTA board member Aaron Huckstep.
“It’s a great idea to get funds flowing but the fear is that it could splinter the air program,” said board member Carolyn Riggs. “We don’t want too many groups talking to the airlines.”
“Communities with successful air programs have one entity representing them,” said Truex. “Down the road, this might be the entity. I could see them coming to the RTA with an idea and asking for money, sort of like the land trust does with the town of Crested Butte.”
“There’s an obligation to not splinter the message,” added Huckstep.
“We just want to support the air program and make it better,” said Eldridge.
The RTA liked the concept and approved a $500 expenditure to help get the Air Alliance off the ground.
Summer Houston flight successful
RTA air consultant Kent Myers said the new summer flight from Houston to Gunnison was a success. It had an overall 82 percent load factor and he expects to see an expansion next summer from the seven weeks it was flown this past summer. Weekly frequency and the length of the service will likely be expanded.
“For a first year program, we are very pleased. There is plenty of room to grow,” Myers said.
“It seems United is very happy with our performance of the last year,” added Truex, who along with Swenson flew to United headquarters in Chicago last week for a series of meetings.
Tax increase on the horizon?
The RTA board is considering the possibility of asking voters to approve a sales tax increase to further expand the RTA services, both air and ground. The group plans to hire a consultant to investigate the potential success of such a tax increase proposal.
David Flaherty of Magellan Strategies outlined the equation to the RTA board that would begin with a community survey evaluating where the RTA stands with the community.
“First we would take the temperature of the folks and how they feel about the RTA. From there we can help position the RTA and get the word out about all the important things that come with air service to the valley, for example,” he said. “Phase 2 is the education and information phase. Getting every facet of the community involved is important. There would be presentations with multiple groups to raise the awareness of what the RTA does.”
The company would also use social media, radio, print and mail venues to get the word out.
The company and board would then have to decide whether to go to the voters in 2015 or 2016. Phase three would be the actual campaign.
Truex made it clear to the board that while they could fund the first phase and possibly the second, they could not pay for the campaign element of the program if they decide to take it to a vote.
“A third-party entity would have to be formed at the end of the education phase,” said Flaherty.
Airport manager Rick Lamport said there was a master planning effort going on with the airport that would be using survey and information avenues. “We don’t want to send mixed messages and confuse people,” he said.
“There is a lot of stuff with a lot of entities going on right now,” agreed Riggs.
“We definitely don’t want to step on toes and duplicate things,” said Flaherty.
The board was comfortable spending up to $20,000 toward the survey and some educational elements in 2014. More would be spent in 2015.
“It’s not just money,” emphasized Truex. “It will take time spent by the board.”
“It’s critical the board goes out and engages the community on this,” added Myers. “People want to put a face on the board.”
Local business owner Nancy Riemer asked if the board would consider charging for bus service before asking for a tax increase. She was told they had charged $2 per ride in 2010 and people stopped riding the bus.
“It really doesn’t bring in money to help the budget,” said Truex. “But it makes the cost per passenger really go up. The board has made the decision to try to get as many people as possible to ride the buses.”
“Tax increases are never easy,” noted Jeff Moffett with Community Flights. “It can take several tries.”
“That’s one reason we are considering the consultant,” said Truex. “They have a good track record with these types of things.”
The board expects to see a contract with the consultant at the October meeting.
Truex told his board that based on advice from attorneys, he would not be signing a document from the Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism Association pledging him to not divulge certain information. It was referred to as a “Conflict of Interest” and “Whistleblower Policy.” Truex is a member of the TA advisory board. His board was supportive in his refusal to sign such a document.
TA executive director Pamela Loughman said the “conflict-of-interest” and “whistleblower” policies were approved in August 2009 by the board of directors to comply with Internal Revenue Service requirements geared toward non-profit organizations.