Local airport granted millions in federal funds

Project will now be faster, sooner and cheaper

By Katherine Nettles

The Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport was awarded $18 million last week as part of federal relief package to eligible U.S. airports. The funds were issued through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to keep airports poised for a return to normal activity by supplementing lost revenue, keeping staff employed and keeping airport improvement projects on track during the COVID-19 crisis. The large allocation means other entities in the county will save money previously committed to the airport’s renovation plans, as well. Gunnison County’s airport received the third largest sum in the state.

Airport manager Rick Lamport says the funds were granted without any application process but allotment decisions took into consideration what improvement projects were underway when the COVID-19 crisis struck. Gunnison County was well into the process of planning for a $14 million terminal improvement project.

“We got the third or fourth most in the state,” said Gunnison County manager Matthew Birnie in a commissioner meeting following the news. “And that is because we are about to move earth on this project…But it does also give us flexibility to keep people employed.” DIA and the Yampa Valley Regional Airport near Steamboat Springs were also awarded large sums.

Although airport improvements were a major aim of the grant, there are no restrictions on what the funds can be spent on, said Lamport, as long as they are airport-related.

“The first thing to make clear is that this money is for airports. The reason why this money was granted was primarily to keep airports functional during this time so that when the economy is ready to fire back up we can be ready,” he explained.

“The government knows the importance of airports in terms of being economic engines. And we require keeping highly qualified people on staff to stay in compliance with all the federal safety and security regulations, as well as all the technical aspects. If airports started laying off staff, when things turned around again, it could take a long time to ramp up again,” said Lamport. “The government understands the importance of keeping airports ready to go.”

In January, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) issued an economic report on all airports within the state, and Gunnison showed an economic impact on its surrounding community of $121 million in 2017-18. This was up from $98 million in 2013.

While the plan is to move forward with the airport improvements, officials have not yet determined how all the funds will be spent. Large sums could be set aside to help with operating expenses for up to four years, said Lamport.

The airport has been losing money in the past month since activity came to a halt in mid-March. “We’ve lost in the region of $100,000 to $120,000. That is basically since American Airlines stopped flying on March 17,” said Lamport.

He said he has some estimates of what the airport might lose in revenue overall, but it is strictly hypothetical without knowing how fast the economy will open up and bounce back. “It all depends on how the air service will pan out. Because air service is important to us. It pays a lot of our bills. And we’ve had a reduction in air service. Our guess is that if we don’t have any air service through summer, we will be down $400,000 to $500,000 in revenues,” said Lamport.

“The FAA made a broad judgment call, knowing it can take between 18 months and four years to get back on an even keel after all this,” he concluded.

Terminal project

Lamport confirmed that as intended for the funds, “A lion’s share will go to the terminal improvement project.” Previously there had been a very real possibility that the overhaul would take place in phases, prioritizing a new roof and replacing antiquated mechanical and electrical systems first and addressing modern security standards and passenger holding areas later. It will now be tackled all at once, with more efficiency and less service interruption than the phased approach.

“We can do the project in one go, which is an amazing cost savings. It’s faster, sooner and cheaper,” said Lamport. While county staff had expected to start in April of 2021 at the earliest, Lamport said he now hopes it can begin this coming fall. The county has selected Shaw Construction as the contractor for the terminal and is negotiating to get an initial guaranteed maximum price before signing a contract. Then will come a final design, and some of the items in the “wants” category may now be attainable.

“We were looking at just the essentials, but there were things like adding a covered canopy over the curb, for instance, that we couldn’t have done before. Now we will be able to consider doing that. And putting on a longer term, 50-year roof instead of a 25-year roof. So, we will certainly look at our project list and ask ourselves in what ways we think we can intelligently and responsibly add on,” said Lamport.

People throughout the county will benefit from this windfall, as Lamport described it, as the money circulates from job security, hired contractors staying in the county and a better airport product. Other entities will also be able to re-direct their own spending, including the county itself and the RTA. The Gunnison Valley Regional Transit Authority (RTA) had committed to contribute $250,000 annually to the project for the next 20 years and will no longer need to do so.

County commissioner Roland Mason, who sits on the RTA board, commented “Releasing the RTA from that is going be helpful.”

RTA executive director Scott Truex agreed. “We were very glad that the airport was the recipient of CARES Act funding and that the terminal renovation project now looks to be well funded,” he said. “We will be discussing this matter at the next meeting of the RTA board of directors but my understanding right now is that the RTA will no longer be asked to contribute funds toward the terminal project.”

Gunnison County is also off the hook for issuing a debt of $7.5 million for the project as it had planned.

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