Fiscal court approves air service resolution (Pikeville) Appalachian News-Express

Article originally posted to the Appalachian News-Express Web site:

By: Chris Anderson News Editor
Efforts to establish commercial air service in Pike County got a boost on Tuesday, as the Pike County Fiscal Court, after weeks of heated controversy, approved a resolution supporting the use of multi-county funds in the effort to establish the service.
During a special meeting Tuesday, court members, by a 5 – 2 vote, approved the resolution, bringing about the end of weeks of speculation over whether the effort to attract commercial air service to the Pikeville – Pike County Regional Airport would die at thte court’s feet.
Only Dist. 6 Magistrtate Chris Harris and Dist. 1 Magistrate Jeff Anderson voted against the resolution, with both officials expressing the opinion that they don’t think the proposal to establish the service will be successful.  Harris, who discussed the plan in depth during the meeting, has been outspoken in recent weeks with his opposition to the proposal.  He cited a study which showed the plan by which the City of Pikeville, the Southeast Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and the Pikeville – Pike County Airport Board are operating has a low success rate.
Anderson, in whose district the airport lies, said he wants the service to succeed, but does not think it will.
Dozens of people attended the meeting to hear the court’s decision on the resolution.  Among those were representatives of the City of Pikeville, the chamber and other organizations.  Airport consultant Luke Schmidt gave a presentation similar to the one he presented previously at a commercial air service forum hosted by the Appalachian News-Express in which he detailed the plan to attract a commercial carrier.
However, Schmidt’s presentation was unsuccessful in swaying Harris’ opinion of the plan.
Following Schmidt’s presentation, Harris, while thanking Schmidt for coming before the court and presenting his information, criticized parts of the plan which called for a “revenue guarantee” plan to be established in the event flights from the Pikeville – Pike County Airport are not profitable.  Such a plan, Harris said, is akin to “corporate welfare.”
Harris conceded that the county needs commercial air service but questioned the cost of establishing the service.
“Many of us here would like to see commercial air service in Pike County: that’s not the issue,” Harris said.  “The issue is, ‘At what cost do we want to see commercial air service in Pike County?’  At a time when we are looking at a loss of jobs, declining tax revenue, a limited amount of funding, I don’t think Pike County, right now, I don’t think we can afford this kind of project.”
Harris said he believes the information provided thus far regarding the plan has been “one-sided” as a result of a “publicity campaign” by those in support of the plan, which he said, includes the chamber of commerce, and the News-Express.
Harris questioned Schmidt about the plan and its perceived requirement for matching funds in addition to federal grant funds already secured for the project.  He also presented figures from a 2008 U.S. Office of the Inspector General audit regarding the Small Community Air Service Development Grant which showed the grant has a “dismal track record” of success.
Harris said proposals to attract commercial air service using the Small Community Air Service Development Grant as its foundation have been successful only 30 pecent of the time, according to the study.  He added that the study shows that the success rate did not increase more than 10 percent, even with increase community financial support.
He said such a success rate is an unsafe investment.
“That’s not the kind of investment I would make with my money,” Harris said.  “If you only had a 30 percent chance to get a return, to get a success, ‘Is that the kind of investment I would make with my money?’  And that’s the way I look at the public’s money.  ‘Is this something that I would do with my money?’  And it’s not: a 30 percent success rate is not a good track record.”
Harris added that the audit shows that cost subsidy plans such as that proposed for Pike County has a zero percent success rate.
Schmidt said he had read the study and agreed that the plan using the grant has a low success rate.  He added, however, that many of the failed plans were for areas of the country with only a small population base and which were hundreds of miles away from larger population bases.
Anderson followed Harris comments with comments of his own, expressing a belief that the service will fail.
Those magistrates’ voices, however, were the only ones of opposition.
Dist. 5 Magistrate Hillman Dotson said he is unsure if the proposed plan will be successful in establishing a profitable commercial air service in Pike County.  He added, however, that investing in the plan to attract commercial iar service is similar to the county investing in the development of industrial parks.
“I’ve been on the cour for several years now and we’ve invested millions of dollars in our industrial parks and we’ve seen some of them pass and some of them fail,” he said.  “That’s an example of what we’re doing today: we’re putting multi-county money to test to see if it will make money.”
Dotson, who along with Dist. 3 Magistrate Leo Murphy, attended the News- Express air forum, said the proposal could fail, jsut as what happened with the investment the county made in the former Sykes call center at Mossy Bottom.  The center, most recently operating under the name ACS, closed in May.
“This might fail, but it might be a success,” he said.
He went on recall the developemnt of the Eastern Kentucky Exposition Center, saying that some on the court was in favor of the facility while others were against it.  He said the issues surrounding commercial air service are similar to those which were considered when the Expo Center project was in development.
“I think the Expo has not made money.  I don’t thnk it will make money, but it has brought a lot of good things to Pike County,” Dotson said.
Southeast Kentucky Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jared Arnett, who was the only person who chose to speak as part of the meeting’s public comments portion, said commercial air service will help to maintain industries currently established in Pike County and will also help attract new industries to the county.
Arnett said the air service will help to begin to diversify the region’s economy.  He adeed that the plan should be given the chance to succeed, even if it is only a slim chance as illustrated by the study presented by Harris.
“I’ll say that, 30 percent likelihood of success is better than 100 percent likelihood of failure,” Arnett said.
The resolution nearly died for lack of a second after Pike County Judge/Executive Wayne T. Rutherford made a motion to put the resolution to a vote.  Dotson seconded Rutherford’s motion after several seconds of silence from the court.
As the court members were polled for their vote, Dist. 2 Magistrate Vernon “Chick” Johnson said his opinion on the plan has shifted several times..  He went on to say that he would vote in favor of the plan, but warned those spearheading the effort to not come before the court to ask for more money in the future.
Similar warnings accompanied votes by Murphy, and Dist. 4 Magistrate Kenneth Robinson before the magistrates voted in favor of the resolution.
Rutherford, who has been outspoken in his belief that the county had been left out of the development of the plan, did not comment on the plan prior to the vote by the court to adopt the resolution.  Following the the passage of the resolution, Rutherford, who also voted in its favor, siad commercial air service will be another tool in the county’s “tool box” for economic development.