The only thing unreported in the News-Herald’s 27 September coverage of the commissioner candidates’ debate regarding the above was the 800 pound gorilla in the room. “What’s that?”, you say. Since 1988 the Willoughby Lost Nation Airport has experienced a staggering 61 percent loss in based aircraft. Flight operations have declined a commensurate amount. The gorilla stands up and says, “My 401 K went down 65%; so why not invest taxpayers in an economic tool like this airport? The City of Willoughby finally says no, and that they will cut their losses and be out of the airport business by the time their federal grant obligation expires in 2016.
But it could be an economic tool so lets do it again. The gorilla nods vigorously hoping they will give him more bananas and says enthusiastically, “Yes, we will compete with Cuyahoga County Airport next door and they only lost $900,000 last year”. We have a surplus of aviation infrastructure in our region and government cannot even see the 800 pound gorilla in the room.
So why is the County Port Authority attempting a transfer of ownership to Lake County? Opponents of a public airport argue this is an unwise use of 400 plus acres in the heart of Lake County. They know this land has a much greater economic potential than to continue sapping tax dollars at both federal and local government levels. They also point to Lake County's back yard where the viable but struggling Cuyahoga County Airport is a mere 8.5 miles away and partially in Willoughby Hills. Aviation interests are reluctant to admit that there is not a great hardship relocating over such a short distance. It also begs the question as to how two underutilized county airports could possibly be justified that close together. Only government agencies and special interests would promote an obvious duplication of services using taxpayer dollars. Indeed, the 2011 economic feasibility study conducted by the Port Authority concluded that Limited Industrial, not aviation, was the best economic use for the Lost Nation airport lands. There is even enough land to do it with a surrounding conservation buffer to existing residential areas.
Following thirty years of gorilla sightings on local runways the FAA bureaucracy was slow to recognize a broad decline in General Aviation (GA). But they recently funded and commenced a study here in Ohio to examine, among other things, surplus general aviation infrastructure. According to the project statement, The Ohio Focus Study will examine capacity at existing airports and “will be used by the FAA and ODOT in making hard decisions on proposed development plans, including the evaluation of over-saturation in regions, and recommendations for regionalism.” Now that the Feds are finally looking at the unintended consequences of the FAA’s funding over 3,000 General Aviation airports, it is not the time for Lake County to ignore regionalism and back into the airport business. If the County Commissioners accept airport ownership, as recommended by the Port Authority, the first grant dollar they accept will invoke a new twenty-year obligation for a purpose and need that has not been established.
Good government requires both openness and due diligence. As a stakeholder in the aforementioned Port Authority economic study I do not agree that the study supports their recommendation that Lost Nation Airport be transferred to the County. Now a federally funded study is in progress that can answer the crucial questions of aviation purpose and need for yet another county airport. Common sense and due diligence demand nothing less than that we participate in this long awaited study and hear its conclusions before making this important Lake County decision. Otherwise folks, they keep giving our bananas to that gorilla.