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Regional airport commission pitches value of national hub

December 05, 2018
LITTLETON—Leaders of the Mount Washington Regional Airport met with the town's Budget Committee last week; the two groups hashed through a number of costs, benefits, and sticking points in their complicated relationship.

"The airport has been a multi-town airport for many years," explained Wendy Roberts, from airport leadership.

The intermunicipal agreement which governs the airport originated in 2002, and was redrafted in 2010. Of the seven original member towns, Jefferson withdrew, and Franconia has declined to pay its dues, Roberts said. The remaining members are Littleton, Lancaster, Whitefield, Sugar Hill, and Dalton.

Under the agreement, towns are assessed on a per-capita basis to make up whatever portion of the budget remains after fees are assessed on private users. Member towns (except Franconia) pay $1.41 per citizen to the airport.

According to Commission leadership, nonpayment of dues opens a town to legal action, though Roberts was clear that, "The Commission has never done that. I'm not saying we're going to do that."

The airport rents hanger space to private citizens, some on leases as long as fifty years. Roberts said that some of the oldest leases "are not where they should be in terms of fees." Hanger rentals brought in $7,675 last year.

Fuel sales brought in $7,150, with many thousands of gallons sold. The airport tries to keep its prices competitive.

"Pilots seek out airports that have reasonable fuel prices," explained Jay Ennis, himself a pilot, who was able to move his life and livelihood to the North Country thanks to the proximity of the airport.

The third largest source of revenues is overnight parking fees, which are, for example, $10 for a single-engine, noncommercial plane, $15 for twin-engine noncommercials, and $65 for commercial flights.

New communities decline to join

Efforts to enlist more towns in the airport have been attempted this year, but "We have not, at this point, been successful," Roberts said.

Rapprochement with the Mount Washington Hotel, considered to be a major beneficiary of the airport, has not yet succeeded. At last Tuesday's meeting, members of the Budget Committee encouraged the airport to continue efforts to enlist more towns and businesses.

Budget Committee member Ralph Hodgeman asked, "Why aren't the other towns contributing, if this is such a good deal?"

Ennis replied that former members of the airport Commission had not invested in relationships with area communities, and that the current leadership team was only two years old.

"We are trying," he said.

Carroll and Jefferson were both approached this year.

"I think that Littleton is the biggest beneficiary of the airport," he added.

"We do not mind contributing," said Budget Committee member Diane Cummings. "We don't want to contribute more than we have to."

Littleton pays about 45 percent of the total budget. A shoestring budget means that the airport is run entirely by volunteers.

"The airport is not staffed," Roberts said. "There is no one there."

She explained that flights are recorded by a camera system. In 2017, the airport recorded flights from 95 locations in 26 states, including California and Washington, and three countries. It operates a 4,001 foot runway.

Transport from the airport has been a significant hurdle in past years, but as of this year, North Country Ford provides rental service, and at least one spirited entrepreneur has begun an Uber route in the area.

Roberts described location—specifically, proximity to attractions—as a key advantage the airport held over other competing landing locations.

"Nobody wants to fly into Berlin, to be honest," she told the Budget Committee. "Their runway is fogged in a lot."

Airport leadership said they hope to add a jet fuel farm, which would expand the number and type of planes that could refuel. For instance, many turboprop planes use it. Furthermore, a store of jet fuel would enable National Guard helicopters to refuel and conduct "periodic missions." Talks are underway for a long-term presence, the Commissioners said, though they do not expect construction within two years. The National Guard would be major purchasers of jet fuel.

Another growth area that Airport leadership identifies is wealthy visitors, the sorts who prefer to rent a plane instead of driving north three hours. A large portion of the airport's traffic and revenues is tourism- and business-related, and private charter planes are a major target market.

Commissioner Lyn Tober identified "Bringing affluent individuals to the area, and helping businesses get a foot in the area," as value that the airport added to the region.

She added that, "There's really no other option than flying."

"Second home ownership is a wonderful thing for the North Country, because they draw very few services," while still contributing above-average value to the tax base, Roberts pointed out.

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Varney Smith
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