This My Word was written by the following members of the Fly Humboldt Steering Committee - a coalition of individuals and local business leaders working together to support local economic development through stronger local air service: Neal Ewald - Green Diamond Resource Company, Mary Keehn - Cypress Grove Chèvre, Patrick Cleary - Lost Coast Communications, Liana and Bud Simpson, Sequoia Personnel, and Individuals Don Banducci and Chris Lehman.
A small county budget decision could cost Humboldt County taxpayers millions of dollars through inadequate air service and stunted economic growth.
Humboldt County taxpayers have been paying more and getting less for air service in and out of Humboldt County ever since Alaska Airlines left in 2011. From local school kids traveling to visit Washington D.C. to the local business owner traveling across the country for a meeting with a prospective client, we have all either coughed up more money for fewer flight options or we have been priced out of trips altogether. In fact, according to the Redwood Region Economic Commission, since Alaska Airlines left our county, ticket prices are up from $180 on average to $250, almost a 40% price increase in just two years!
These economics are not complicated. If we cannot recruit another airline to replace the void left by Alaska Airlines, we will all continue to pay more for less. But the increase in ticket prices is only part of the problem. Strong air service is an absolute foundation for economic growth in remote communities. In order to create jobs, bring in new businesses, and have access to markets outside of Humboldt County, we must have reliable and frequent air service. More and more new jobs are done over the phone and on the Internet, but it is awfully hard to create new jobs if you cannot look someone in the eye and give them a firm handshake to cement the deal. Sometimes, you have to be there.
That is why, beginning in 2011, concerned individuals and business owners collaborated with local governments to form Fly Humboldt - an organization committed to helping improve our air service, beginning with the recruitment of a new airline. Fly Humboldt partnered with the Humboldt County Aviation Division and Redwood Region Economic Commission and had immediate success, nearly coaxing American Airlines to open up service in the Spring of 2012. However, that effort ultimately failed due to a lack of up-front financing typical for new airline recruitment. Fly Humboldt immediately went to work to solve the financing issue. Within months, Fly Humboldt raised over $250,000 from individuals, business owners, and community groups to match a $750,000 grant that the Humboldt County Aviation Division secured from the Federal Government for a $1 million recruitment incentive - the national standard.
Currently, the Humboldt County Aviation Division, supported by the Redwood Economic Development Commission and Fly Humboldt is using the recruitment incentive and a lot of relationships built through nearly two years of hard work to land a couple of airlines who have been checking out our community for the last few months. If successful, this will be a huge victory for the entire county. But all of that work may now be at risk.
Buried in a County Budget Report released on Friday, there is a small reference to a budget cut that could jeopardize airline recruitment efforts. The report states that because the Aviation Division is not bringing in enough revenue from airport fees (departures and landings), that the County needs to layoff personnel and shift job responsibilities elsewhere. While the report is ambiguous, it looks like an effort to trim a budget devastated by the Alaska Airline vacancy by cutting the very program that is working to fill the vacancy. That makes absolutely no sense and is counter to what the Aviation Division needs to be successful and counter to what the community clearly wants and needs.
The same County Budget Report states that the Humboldt Economic Index is showing a small 1.3% increase over the last year, which is a great start. We have great confidence that our County Supervisors will thoroughly investigate the small Aviation Division budget item and make sure that while they keep a watchful eye on the bottom line, they will ensure our county’s airline recruitment efforts remain consistent and robust. If we are successful in landing a new airline soon, it will help our community’s very new and very recent economic recovery take flight.