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City Council opens talks for stand-alone airport authority

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The conversation around transferring the Springfield-Branson National Airport to a stand-alone airport authority has begun with city officials.

At City Council’s Jan. 8 luncheon, Jim Anderson, co-chairman of the airport task force, and Brian Weiler, Springfield-Branson National Airport director of aviation, answered questions about the final report the airport task force presented to council last month. Task force members previously pointed to reduced red tape in operations and the pursuit of nontraditional revenue streams for their recommendation to switch to self-governance.

The nine-member task force met seven times between July and November.

“Our role as an airport task force was to look at the merits of the governance and then suggest to council that we think this should be done,” said Anderson, who also is on the airport board. “We did not take a firm position as an airport task force on if there should be a clear separation or should there be a contract for services.”

The looming question is the legality of how an airport authority would be formed.

Now that the report has been discussed by city and airport officials, the next step is for City Manager Jason Gage, along with staff, to determine if a city charter change is necessary and the steps for forming an airport authority, said Rhonda Lewsader, Springfield’s city attorney.

Mayor Ken McClure said the state statute covers airport authorities created in counties, not cities, as well as the process to elect board members.

According to state statute, a governing body of any county may create an airport authority to build or acquire and operate one or more airports within the boundaries of the county or adjoining county. And a board of five or seven elected members is permitted.

“I think I speak for all the task force members in saying we are not recommending that we have elected members on the authority,” Anderson said.

Anderson said he likes the alignment of the airport and the city.

“The city’s role could perhaps be more than just appointing members to the authority. It could be a long-term lease,” he said, pointing to 99-year lease arrangements by the Des Moines International Airport and the Tulsa International Airport as examples.

“Even though those are airport authorities today, they maintain a strong relationship with their municipal entity,” Weiler added.

McClure asked Anderson why the switch was needed.

Anderson said he sees benefits of streamlined decision-making and the airport’s ability to more aggressively pursue nontraditional revenue streams.

“I’d put a go-kart track in it, if I could make money on it,” Weiler said.

The airport currently operates without any tax support from the city, but it does pay $300,000 a year for city services in the legal and human resources departments, Springfield Business Journal previously reported.

The annual airport budget is $27.4 million, according to the proposed fiscal 2018-19 city budget.

The airport has an estimated annual economic impact of $500 million, and it just hit a 1 million-passenger goal on Dec. 6. Officials say passenger counts are up 40 percent over the last four years, according to past SBJ reporting.

Councilman Craig Hosmer asked if other Missouri airports had considered making the switch to an airport authority.

“We would be the first one in the state of Missouri,” Weiler said of the nine commercial service airports in Missouri. “We’re being watched closely by other municipalities.”

Hosmer also wondered if research showed another Missouri airport that had considered a change but decided against it.

“I’m not saying there’s not one out there,” Weiler said. “When I was trying to develop meetings and speakers for this, I really searched hard to try to find pros and cons to offset, and I had a hard time. I do not know of an airport nationwide that has created an authority and then pulled back.”

In Springfield Business Journal’s Dec. 13-20 online poll, 75 percent of the 137 respondents favored placing the airport under a stand-alone regional airport authority.

“This can’t be driven by the airport. I think this has to be a community decision,” Weiler said.

Hosmer suggested a partnership with another state airport to create an airport authority to minimize costs.

“There may be a potential for the Missouri Department of Transportation to have some influence there, as well, because obviously they’re a body we can go to if that scenario unfolds,” Anderson said.

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