County to weigh benefits of high-altitude testing locally

Proponents see possible economic boost

There’s no question that the big red British-made Sea King helicopter currently high-altitude testing at the Gunnison/Crested Butte Regional Airport infuses cash into the local economy. After all, the testing requires nearly 30 personnel members, who have been staying at local hotels and eating at nearby establishments for several months now. But the question for the Gunnison County Commissioners is whether it’s the type of economic diversification that the community desires.

 

 

 

At Gunnison County Board of Commissioners work session on February 6, several area business people answered with an emphatic “yes.”
Pat Wiesner, a partner in the airport’s fixed base operations, Gunnison Valley Aviation, said past work by Boeing and now Qinetiq, which is the corporation testing the Sea King, put $1.6 million in hard cash into the economy. And according to Wiesner, that didn’t include the ancillary monetary gain, which he says may have resulted in as much as $6 million spent locally.
“Somebody’s got to make the decision whether it’s worth it to put up with a little noise to put money in the economy here,” he said.
Airport manager John DeVore explained that Gunnison/ Crested Butte Regional Airport is a desirable place to test because of its high altitude and usually calm conditions. He said that while the commissioners don’t have authority to decide who can use the airport, they can decide which services to provide—like hangars and fire control. Such services are a determinate as to whether corporations wish to test aircraft in Gunnison.
Area resident Jeff Walker said that although the aircraft did create some racket the stimulus to the local economy was worth it. “If there are a few people who live by the airport that are complaining because they live near an airport, then I’m sorry you live near an airport,” he said. “It was there when you moved here.”
Walker went on to say he supported marketing high-altitude testing at airport. “This would be a great boost to diversifying our economy,” he added. “I would obviously be in favor of promoting this type of testing.”
But County Commissioner Chairman Hap Channell countered that while a certain amount of noise was to be expected from the airport, the noise of testing might be more than residents bargained for. “People might say ‘yes, I expected aircraft noise when I moved by the airport, but I didn’t expect helicopter testing at six in the morning,’” he said.
He then noted that commissioners had fielded quite few noise complaints during the summer when the Sea King was doing early morning testing above the runway. 
 Channell said the board recognized the fiscal benefit, but said the board had to weigh interests of the community at large. “I don’t think you’ll get any argument at all from this board about the economic impacts,” he said. “We just want to make sure we balance the interests of the community with our economic needs.”
Others in the community question whether Gunnison County should embrace the industry of military applications like the testing of the Sea King helicopter. Qinetiq has a worldwide reach including North America, where U.S. private equity firm, The Carlyle Group, has as an estimated $700-800 million stake in the corporation.
In an interview after the meeting, long-time peace activist and Gunnison resident John Bach says he’s uneasy about marketing Gunnison as a high-altitude testing area. “We’ve become so used to seeing the military as part of our society we don’t even think about it,” he said.
Bach notes that his horses are spooked by the large helicopter. “The horses’ reaction should be the same reaction of humans when we see these weapons of war,” he said.
Local peace activist Vikki Roach Archuleta also said she has misgivings about military applications in Gunnison. “It really turns me off that our community is part of the war machine,” she said.
But test pilot Mark Purvis told the commissioners that the testing is for a military purpose should be a selling point. He said the new rotor blades that Qinetiq is testing in Gunnison will be used in the wars the United States is currently engaged in. “If you want to put a patriotic spin on it, what we are testing here will have a direct effect in Afghanistan,” he said.
Both Channell and commissioner Jim Starr said they would like to revisit the issue in another work session to determine whether Gunnison/Crested Butte Regional Airport should actively market itself as a high-altitude testing venue.
Starr said he wanted to give the public plenty of advance notification so they can comment if they choose.
The commissioners will consider a contract extension for Qinetiq at their next regular meeting on Tuesday, February 19. The planned work session on future high-altitude testing is yet to be determined.

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