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County stands to lose more than $18.5M if airport closes


NEW RUSSIA TWP - The Lorain County Regional Airport has already lost business as a result of the county's plan to close it on Jan. 15, according to the general manager of the firm that manages the airport and the operator of its flight school.

Two pilots took their planes to Norwalk and another decided to operate his plane from the much smaller Elyria Airport, said Douglas McConnell of Johnston Aviation and Bob Snezek, owner of Zone Aviation.

McConnell and Snezek said they can't fathom why the county would take a chance at losing more business and industry by cutting $175,000 in operating funds and $20,000 in matching funds for a grant.

"You'll drive a lot of people away," said McConnell, whose company sells fuel and maintains the airport. "It's costing business."

The only funding set aside by commissioners in 2010 is $50,000 that county officials say is needed to operate the airport until the county learns whether the Federal Aviation Administration will allow the airport to close or whether legal action is taken by the airport's tenants.

Some 85 entities operate at the airport, including three LifeFlight helicopters from Cleveland's MetroHealth Medical Center.

A 2006 study on the economic impact of aviation in Ohio stated that 333 people are employed at Lorain County's Airport with a payroll of $11.8 million. The total impact of the airport amounts to $37 million in economic activity once a multiplier effect approved by the FAA is taken into account, according to the study.

Ohio's 164 public airports made a $1.7 billion economic impact on the state, according to the study.

David Dennis of the Office of Aviation of the Ohio Department of Transportation said he could not explain the methodology used by the consultant, Wilbur Smith Associates, to come up with the $37 million figure for Lorain County. The consultant could not be reached for comment.

However, the report states that the total impact includes employment, payroll and output related to aviation activity at the airports and the economic ripple effect including money spent on hotels, restaurants, retail and entertainment.

Even if the economic impact for Lorain County is overstated and the airport generates half of that economic activity, that is still $18.5 million that could go elsewhere if the airport is closed, Snezek said.

"(Companies) might go closer to Cuyahoga County," Snezek said.

If the airport is closed, Lorain County, which is already suffering economically, "might dry up completely," Snezek sa id.

Johnston Aviation and others are considering legal action to stop the closing, and the FAA is closely monitoring the situation, according to spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory.

FAA officials have said Lorain County has received $9.2 million in federal funds since 1983 and they expect the airport to remain open despite the county's plan to close it.

McConnell said his company has retained an attorney and will go to court if necessary, but he can't figure out why an expensive court fight is needed to resolve a situation that seems "pretty cut and dry."

McConnell said he doubts the county will be able to pay back the millions in grants from the federal government in order to close the airport.

County Commissioner Ted Kalo said this week that mandated services like operating the jail and the rest of the county justice system must be the top priority after voters overwhelmingly rejected leaving in place a 0.5 percent sales tax hike in November.

"We're going to try to limit the amount of taxpayer money that goes into the airport," Kalo said.

The commissioners and Cordes have acknowledged they don't know if the county can legally close the airport but they will find out once the matter ends up in court.

The airport charges commercial flights a landing fee of about $28, but private pilots do not pay a fee because it is a public airport, according to McConnell and Snezek.

If private pilots are required to pay a landing fee, they would likely take their business to an airport where there is no fee, according to McConnell and Snezek.

While airport operations do not result in a net revenue for the airport, the county does benefit from a yearly payment of about $75,000 from a farmer who leases unused airport land.

The list of those who have used the airport in the past year includes executives visiting Ridge Tools, Target stores, Green Circle Growers and Don Brown, the 90-year-old inventor of the drop ceiling who divides his time between homes in Vermilion and Florida.

Just this week, when businessman Billy S. Rowland came to Elyria Township to donate 58 acres worth $442,600 for a park, his pilot flew his Cessna 182 into the county airport on Wednesday.

A number of years ago, the airport received $1.2 million or more in yearly support from county taxpayers, but many residents have questioned whether taxpayers should be paying to help run it, according to county Administrator Jim Cordes.

But the county still has 15 years remaining on a contract with Johnston Aviation, according to its retired executive vice president, Howard Codney, who helped negotiate the contract.

Talk of a closing "really got my blood boiling," Codney said.

Codney said the county has fostered the impression that "fat cats" who can afford to pay more use the airport.

"They want to show the voters 'we shut these fat cats down,'" Codney said.

Contact Cindy Leise at 329-7245 or cleise@chroniclet.com.

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