Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV


July 10, 2012

New blood Airport authority changes a must

The three-elected members of the Mercer County Commission have an opportunity today to foster positive change at the Mercer County Airport. It’s no secret that the airport — a facility critical to our region’s future — has been on a downward spiral since 2007.

The departure of Colgan Air in late 2007 marked the beginning of woes for the airport and Mercer County as a whole. Not only was commercial air service lost at the time, but also the airport’s Essential Air Service federal subsidy.

Federal officials, including U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said opportunities were missed on the local level. During a meeting with the Daily Telegraph’s editorial board in late 2007, Rockefeller said the Mercer County Airport was the only facility in West Virginia that did not apply for a Small Communities Air Service Grant fund.

Rockefeller said Mercer County officials also failed to respond to a Department of Transportation report in 2005 that indicated airports in Bluefield and Beckley would no longer be eligible to receive an Essential Air Service federal subsidy because of their proximity to hub airports. While Beckley challenged the ruling and ultimately won, Rockefeller said DOT records at the time showed no correspondence from Bluefield. Simply put: The ball was dropped by local officials.

And the story hasn’t improved much in recent years. Today, more than six years later, all hope for a restoration of commercial air service, or at least some form of limited air-taxi service, has seemingly been lost. And further problems continue to persist.

During the crippling snowstorms of 2009 and 2010, the airport was seemingly closed on more days than it was open because of a non-functioning snow removal plow truck at the airport. As a result, corporate air traffic that would have used the airport at the time — had we had appropriate snow removal equipment — was lost. And it is that corporate traffic, along with hanger rentals and fuel sales, that is an absolute must if we are to have a strong general aviation airport.

And there are problems at the facility itself that still haven’t been addressed, including poor restroom facilities and the need for improvements to the pilot lounge area. Also troubling is the fact that local officials are doing very little to promote and market the airport — something that must happen if we are to attract additional corporate traffic. And the apparent inability of local officials to schedule an air show — something that neighboring Tazewell County does every year with tremendous success at their airport in Claypool Hill, Va. — is baffling.

The status quo is no longer working at the Mercer County Airport. We need changes on the airport authority board. We need new blood. And we need it now.

As implausible as it sounds, the Mercer County Commission is scheduled this morning to reappoint two of the existing five airport authority board members to new five-year terms, according to the board’s official agenda. Such a move by the commission is unacceptable. This vote must be delayed. Instead, the commission must actively search out new blood. They must find new candidates with a clear understanding of what is needed to operate, grow and market a successful airport.

We have not only lost commercial air service, but also our ability to aggressively maintain, market and grow the facility. That’s why we need change.

Today’s vote must be delayed until new, qualified candidates can be found. Reappointing the same board members who dropped the ball at the airport in 2007 is a preposterous move. The citizens of Mercer County, and those business leaders across the region who depend upon a strong and vibrant airport, demand better. And we demand better from our elected county commissioners.

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