Task force should explore public/private partnership

Nathan Fisk Published: July 24, 2013 | 12:00 am 0

Recently, Mayor Steve Bach created a task force, led by the venerable Bill Hybl, to improve service and increase volume at the Colorado Springs Airport. This follows the departure of the airport director in March and popular airline, Frontier, in April. Notably, airport traffic will reach a 22 year low this year.

The future health and prosperity of our community does not rest on the wings of the planes parked at the Colorado Springs Airport. Critically, however, the strength and popularity of the airport is inextricably linked to the tourism, education, military and commerce assets of our community. Right now we depend on our local government to make smart choices; maybe the private sector has prudence and promise that we should explore.

It's no silver bullet, but the task force would do well to consider how privatization, or at least a noble effort at a public/private partnership, would benefit Colorado Springs and the surrounding communities. Just last year Congress reauthorized the FAA's Airport Privatization Pilot Program permitting "public airports to sell or lease an airport with certain restrictions and to exempt the sponsor from certain federal requirements that could otherwise make privatization impractical." The obvious concerns raised by communities considering privatization often relate to operational details like safety, regulatory concerns, and the financial structure of the private entity. While the "how" questions are both important and complicated, perhaps the place to start is with the "who" and "why."

Why should this be considered? First, a private entity would, by definition, be extremely motivated to pull the Colorado Springs Airport out from its economic doldrums using every marketing and political maneuver possible. Right now, as a public enterprise, the airport is entirely self-sufficient and uses no tax dollars, but it also doesn't create profit that flows back to the city. And while it's commendable that the operation is self-sufficient, it's also clearly failing to thrive. Most privatization plans include significant cash upfront and ongoing revenue guarantees. At this juncture (and for a city with a very tight budget) a big pile of cash sounds good, and some ongoing annual plumping of the piggybank wouldn't be too shabby either.

Since there is no "airport" category on Craigslist, who are likely candidates for such an acquisition? Consider companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing or Northrop Grumman. Those three corporations - all with long history and existing facilities in Colorado Springs - happen to also be the three largest U.S. defense contractors. Each has significant and ongoing projects that deal directly with aircraft, aircraft parts and even airport equipment; perhaps an air field on the balance sheet would be a smart business move.

Or consider Colorado's own Anschutz family. As of 2011, they own The Broadmoor and the Cog Railway. Notably, their name (and their financial backing) is often considered whenever the question of a downtown convention center is discussed. A private entity with financial stakes in a downtown Colorado Springs convention center and the airport would be a powerful economic force. (Make no mistake, a busy convention center with a regular schedule of out-of-state exhibitors and event attendees will make it easier to attract more airlines and will increase the number of prime flights in and out of Colorado Springs). It's merely an example, but the bottom line? An organization with multiple commercial interests could be an excellent caretaker for the airport.

As community leaders like Hybl and Steve Bartolin work to understand and solve the airport dilemma, it's worth having a healthy and renewed debate about public/private partnerships.

This one might or might not be a good idea, but we'll never know if we don't put the option on the table.

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Nathan Fisk is a national business and political consultant residing in El Paso County. Contact the author at nfisk@ideasforcolorado.com.

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