Arguments for and against an airport expansion ballot question this fall were presented Wednesday to the Southwest Colorado Workforce Development Board.
The ballot measure would raise taxes – property, rather than sales, tax is the favored option – to cover about half a proposed $85 million terminal and other upgrades to the Durango-La Plata County Airport.
Roger Zalneraitis, executive director of the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance, said the business sector is stressed the longer a new terminal is postponed.
“We’ve asked professional services why they moved here, and they give four reasons: the Durango ‘brand,’ Fort Lewis College, good Internet service in the downtown area and the airport,” he said. “There’s no inexpensive way to do this, but of the options assessed, this is the best one. We’re notoriously behind on infrastructure. Let’s stop being behind.”
But board member Daniel Greer said La Plata County is famous for inhibiting business growth.
“La Plata County is notorious for running off businesses that want to come in here. Why in the world would we support an airport expansion if we’re not going to support businesses?” Greer said. “Chevron doesn’t have a big office here for a reason. BP has a sizeable office, but it’s nothing compared to San Juan County, New Mexico – for a reason. You guys (the county) tried to run off GCC (King II coal mine owners). You’ve done a horrible job with business development. Why should we support you now?”
The Economic Development Alliance maintains that an airport is a key component among three initiatives, including a potential business park and high-speed Internet, that will advance the economy.
Dave Peters, a retired Chevron executive who argued the expansion, said because county revenue is on the decline and other tax increase proposals will be floated to voters this year, the airport should wait.
Moreover, Federal Aviation Administration data show the airport’s enplanements saw a decrease of 3.6 percent from 2014 to 2015.
“I think we need to be careful and prioritize,” Peters said. “I support an expansion, but you’re going to get one bite at the apple, and this is lower in the queue than other initiatives. If you want your best chance, wait a year, maybe two years.”
Zalneraitis said this year is the right one to float the question, in part because the terminal’s completion would be about four years away if construction began today.
“Secondly, voters are savvy,” he said. “Whether you put all the tax increases on this year or stage them one at a time, taxes are still going up. I don’t see the benefit of holding them.”
County and city officials will continue to discuss the ballot item, among other topics, at a 7:30 a.m. Thursday work session at the county Administration Building, 1101 East Second Ave.