“Terrible time to ask and we don’t have time to wait”
Every time Mike Hersh lands at the Gunnison Crested Butte Regional Airport, he stocks up at City Market and the liquor store, fills his car with gas and makes the drive to the north end of the valley. He splits his time between Crested Butte and Atlanta, where he keeps one foot in Atlanta’s business world to make ends meet.
Hersh and a handful of residents who use the airport for business travel joined the latest meeting between the Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) and Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR). They reminded the air partners that the airport does more than deliver skiers to the resort—it benefits the whole valley’s economy.
“I would imagine you could correlate flights into Gunnison to City Market data,” Hersh said on Friday, February 17.
The business travelers entered the discussion just as the RTA and CBMR make plans for a retreat on March 2, where they’ll debate several possible five-year air plans. Among the options are continuing the current markets (Dallas, Houston and Denver), focusing instead on a robust service between Denver and Gunnison and developing regional service out of Montrose.
The RTA will also consider the best way to increase revenue for the air program, even contemplating a voter referendum this fall to equalize tax contributions across the valley. There’s hesitation all around on that one, but all else aside, the board seems to be recognizing a new goal: to tell a different story about the air program, moving from a narrative where airplanes bring skiers to CBMR to one where the whole valley understands that a strong air program means a strong economy.
Regular flights benefit more than ski resort
At Friday’s board meeting, commissioner Phil Chamberland told the rest of the board that the RTA needs to focus on providing regular service to and from Denver.
“We need better, consistent Denver service year-round because locals help support this program, and I think they’re the ones being short-changed within the context of the RTA,” Chamberland said.
Local businessman Rocky Kimball said he appreciated Chamberland’s comments. He’s racked up more than 200,000 frequent flier miles, much of them flying in and out of the Gunnison Airport.
But diminishing schedules have put a damper on his ability to do that, and for Kimball, that’s a missed opportunity for the RTA. He sees business fliers as “money in the bank” for the air program.
“It’s Daddy’s money,” he said. “The company is going to pay for it. We bring money, we work on the Internet, we work on the airplane. I’m glad to hear what Phil said, because it’s killing us. No one would bring a business here right now if they depended on air travel.”
But what seems hard to determine is just how many workers rely on the airport. Mt. Crested Butte Mayor William Buck asked if Hersh or Kimball could speak to the size of the population that works and travels like they do.
“We can do it anecdotally,” Kimball answered.
It’s an answer that resounds across the valley, as letters to the editor and conversations with public officials continually speak to the growing relevance of remote workers. In the past weeks, Crested Butte News conversations with community leaders like Paul Gray, executive director of the Region 10 League for Economic Assistance & Planning, suggest that air service is a topic on many people’s minds.
Gray hosts Stronger Economies Together training sessions once a month, which involve six Colorado counties. The topic of airlines has come up there, too. But when it comes to numbers, he said, “I don’t have any way to capture that, and it’s not just remote workers, it’s anybody who wants to fly out of Gunnison or Montrose or Telluride who isn’t a skier.”
According to airport director John Devore, for the last five years, the Gunnison Crested Butte Regional Airport has seen 38,000 to 41,000 enplanements per year.
“In the wintertime it’s mostly tourists, and we see a lot of locals during the holidays and spring break. After that, it’s mostly locals and business people, and in the summertime a lot of second homeowners and locals. Hunting season is mostly out of state,” DeVore said.
But he said it’s hard to apply numbers to those populations. What he does know is the peak in enplanements—nearly 70,000—was back in the mid-nineties.
A sense of urgency
What is clear is that even the status quo is getting too expensive, and there is a strong desire across the community for swift action. Dave White, owner of Colorado Boarder in Mt. Crested Butte and the Air Up There in Crested Butte, told the board that in 15 years of business, this winter is the worst he’s seen. Chris Osmundson of Flatiron Sports said he had just seen his worst January in 20 years.
“How are we going to get people back into this valley?” White asked. “I’m a local. I don’t want to move. I want to die here.”
According to CBMR’s director of Crested Butte Vacations Jeff Moffett, things have picked up with this year’s airline reservations. Weekly bookings are pacing about 9.5 percent behind last year, which is an improvement over the 12.5 percent seen earlier in the season.
American Airlines service from Dallas and Houston are up, and only 3 percent off of load factor targets. Moffett is optimistic that if the snow continues, and the economy stays where it is, the remaining ski season will make it possible to hit those load factors. By contrast, United service out of Denver is about 9 percentage points short of the season target.
Looking for revenues
One of the fundraising options on the table is a voter referendum asking the city of Gunnison to pay the same tax rate as the rest of the valley—an increase from .35 percent to .6 percent. The RTA has also discussed raising the rate to 1 percent for the entire valley, which would generate an additional $1.1 million, according to RTA executive director Scott Truex. So far, the RTA sees that as a risky proposition.
“Just because we have air seats doesn’t mean anyone out there wants to buy them. I think we have a demand problem for our resort product… When we look at 68,000 people landing at that airport versus 38,000 people, there’s a demand problem,” said Mt. Crested Butte town manager Joe Fitzpatrick.
And board chair Chris Morgan spoke to the need for certainty: “If we put something on the ballot and it doesn’t pass, then we’re stuck for at least a couple more years. We have to be careful that we believe it’s going to pass and set up the proper vehicle to help it pass.”
“For equalization, we always agreed that it has to pass in the city of Gunnison,” RTA executive director Scott Truex added. “The whole district shouldn’t be able to raise their taxes.”
Throughout the conversation, Buck, Truex and board member Roland Mason all said it was not the right time to go to voters, citing concerns like the state of the economy, the 2011 defeat of the library ballot initiative and the enormous task of convincing the public to give more support to the RTA in eight or nine months. Gunnison Mayor Jonathon Houck said he was torn.
“It’s a terrible time to go ask and we don’t have time to wait. I don’t know that we can wait,” Houck said.
But CBMR’s general manager, Ethan Mueller, and Gunnison Crested Butte Tourism Association director Jane Chaney offered another perspective.
“I don’t think it’s a question of air or supporting the RTA,” Mueller said. “It’s ‘Does the general public truly understand what this means to them?’… We need to tell them what it means to a gas station in Gunnison that doesn’t have a tie to air or tourism or flying in and out for a business reason.”
“I think we have a responsibility to help people understand this is dire, but it’s going to be worse if we don’t take drastic measures right now,” said Chaney.
The board did acknowledge that Steamboat recently passed a .25 percent tax to fund an air program; 63 percent of voters were in favor of it even after starting with 70:30 odds that it wouldn’t pass. Still, there was hesitation.
“I don’t think it’s enough time to get all this together,” said Mason. “I think we should start working on it now for next year.”
Yet according to Marion Taylor, finance and human resources director at the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association, the Steamboat campaign did not begin until after the measure was officially on the ballot—in July or August.
In the end, an RTA decision was put off until the March 2 retreat.
“I don’t feel like I have enough information to make a good decision that yes I believe this is going to make a difference,” said Crested Butte Mayor Aaron Huckstep. “There’s no question we need more revenue, but at the same time we have to have a product to say this is what we’re going to get. Right now I don’t know what that is.”
The board did commit to providing a consistent level of bus service over the next five years. The RTA will continue to offer eight round trips per day during the winter, and nine round trips on weekends. During the summer, the RTA will run three round trips per day—the minimum service they can offer and still qualify for federal funding.
Truex estimates the cost of that program will fall between $450,000 and $503,000 per year over the next five years, with fluctuations due to fuel prices and other factors. Some of those costs will be offset by grant revenues, bringing the RTA contributions to a range of $312,220 to $348,685.
“Is there any consideration of what I brought up at our last meeting? Not yes bus or no bus, but allow the RTA to be an economic driver [by funding air] and fund the bus through other sources like municipality and the county?” Mueller asked.
But the RTA would not back down from the fact that voters approved the RTA with bus service as part of the equation, and that bus service is critical to many of the Gunnison voters they might be asking to kick in more for air. For now, the RTA will seek a five-year plan and funding sources that work in conjunction with bus service.
Houck, perhaps, summed the challenge up best half way through the discussion:
“We keep trying to say that Gunnison is a bus thing and Crested Butte is an air thing, and it’s not that simple… The air service is absolutely essential for this valley’s economy, but just putting more money toward it is not going to make it successful. We need a program that succeeds because it is used.”
The question, of course, still remains. What does that look like?