CHARLESTON — Giant steps were taken Monday toward the restoration of commercial air service at the Mercer County Airport during an emergency meeting of local, state and federal officials.

Gov. Joe Manchin, who asked Daily Telegraph Executive Editor Tom Colley to organize Monday’s meeting at Yeager Airport in Charleston, also instructed Susan Chernenko, director of the state Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Commission, to begin immediate discussions with new commercial air carriers, charter air-service providers and companies providing air-taxi services, who may be willing to extend their service to Mercer County.

“We can sit here and beat each other up over these things that have happened, or we can help,” Manchin, who was joined by U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and representatives of U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., and U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. “We are going to do everything we can to help you and support you. Right now, what we have to do is get another carrier to come in. That’s our number one priority.”

Manchin said general aviation is a critical industry to the Mountain State, adding that lawmakers hope to have a “compelling tax package” passed by early next year that will provide new incentives to commercial air-service providers in the state.

“Coming up here today has reaffirmed public confidence after this disaster,” Colley, who answered the governor’s request to organize the emergency meeting, said. “The invitation to come up here and meet with all of you shows the public something is being done.”

More than 269,000 people live within a 35-mile radius of Bluefield, which includes Mercer, Tazewell, Bland, Giles and McDowell counties, Tazewell County Administrator Jim Spencer said. By working together and promoting the region as a whole, Spencer said officials will be more successful in attracting a new air-carrier service.

“I think this is great,” Joe Coburn, president of the Mercer County Commission, said. “I think we were sort of lost and at a standstill last week, and didn’t know what to do. I think we are getting some good ideas now.”

“It appears to me we are heading down two paths,” Marc Meachum, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Bluefield Chamber of Commerce, said. “One is commercial, and one is general aviation. We must decide the emphasis we are going to put on commercial, and if we are going to attract an air-taxi. The general aviation is the other path. We need to work on both, but we need to focus on one of the others first.”

Rahall said Mercer County will have another opportunity in 2008 to argue its case for a federal Essential Air Service subsidy. In the meantime, Rahall said Mercer County officials must go after every grant dollar possible; attract a new carrier, charter service or air-taxi service; and promote the airport as a first-class general aviation facility.

Mercer County lost its federal Essential Air Service subsidy last year, and Colgan Air ceased commercial air service in Bluefield last week.

“Get other points in your favor,” Rahall said. “Build it up. Bluefield is a beautiful airport. Go after some of these grants. You need someone to go after these grants. Call it a grant writer or an economic development director, but somebody has to be going after these grants everyday.”

Rick Atkinson, manager of the Yeager Airport, said a new air-taxi service in Bluefield would help to meet immediate economic development needs in Mercer County, but not the vacation needs of area families.

“It’s not going to get a family of four to Disney Land, but it takes care of getting people in to do economic development,” Atkinson said. “Businesses can get their sales people in there. They can get their mid-level chief executive officers in there.”

– Contact Charles Owens at cowens@bdtonline.com

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