QUEENSBURY — If it weren’t for Warren County airport, Tom Cahill’s nearby business would be somewhere else.
Cahill, whose Cessna 310 is based at the airport, frequently uses his plane to visit clients of his manufacturing business, Melvina Can Machinery, who are scattered throughout the Northeast and beyond.
“If it wasn’t here, I would flat out leave,” Cahill said of the airport. “It’s a tool I’ve always used in my business.”
From Cahill’s small manufacturing operation to some of the region’s largest employers, in single-engine Cessnas and small jets, local companies are using the county-owned airport to conduct business.
But a proposed runway expansion remains controversial in Warren County, with opponents questioning whether the benefits to taxpayers outweigh the cost. Cahill and other airport users take issue with arguments that the airport benefits only a small, wealthy segment of the population.
The airport is an amenity local economic development groups point to when they market the region, and it was one of the reasons Hacker Boat Co. is relocating from Ticonderoga to Queensbury Business Park, just south of the airport, company officials said.
“One of the first questions we have is, ‘Where is the nearest airport?’” said Ken Rawley, Hacker’s director of sales and marketing.
Hacker officials hope to break ground on their new Queensbury plant during the first quarter of 2014.
“It was a factor for us,” Hacker CEO George Badcock said of the airport. “Probably 70 percent come that way, and with larger boats, custom boat-building and now with building for yacht vendors, we do see that increasing.”
Over the next several years, as Hacker expands its product lines and puts additional focus on overseas markets, production of the luxury boats will increase and the company’s employment is expected to nearly double, from 45 to 80 employees.
“That’s a perfect, concrete example of what the benefits are of having that airport,” said Glens Falls 3rd Ward Supervisor Harold “Bud” Taylor, who also chairs the Warren-Washington Counties Industrial Development Agency board.
Come fly to us
The airport property is flanked by the Warren-Washington Counties Industrial Development Agency’s Airport Industrial Park, and the Queensbury Business Park, where Hacker will go.
When Warren County Economic Development Corp. markets the county as a place to locate businesses, features like proximity to the airport and the Northway are played up. Ed Bartholomew, who took over earlier this year as president of the EDC, sees the airport as integral to a strategy of promoting the area to businesses.
“I strongly believe the airport is an economic plus for the area,” he said. “It’s serving existing businesses and industries and it’s an attraction tool.”
EDC is the developer of the Queensbury Business Park. In the corporation’s brochure promoting the business park, proximity to the airport is played up, along with the park’s infrastructure and Empire Zone benefits.
Business owners consider numerous factors when deciding where to locate their operations, and a nearby airport is one of the variables that can tip the scales.
Business leaders of companies already here use the airport to fly to corporate headquarters located elsewhere, fly clients in and ship materials. International Paper, Finch Paper, Irving Tissue, General Electric, Nibco, Aetna Insurance and Travelers have been among the airport’s regular users, officials said.
Target representatives fly into the airport occasionally; visiting elected officials fly in; and during the summer months, Sagamore Resort guests and Saratoga Race Course visitors use the airport.
“I knew about tourism, but I was surprised what industry was lending to it,” said Dan Girard, chairman of the Warren County Facilities Committee, which oversees airport operations.
For some smaller business owners like Cahill and Queensbury-based orthopedic surgeon Dr. Rich Saunders, the ability to fly to work means the ability to expand their businesses and cut back on the hours they’d otherwise spend driving.
Cahill’s company builds new can machinery and rebuilds used machinery. The machines can cost more than $100,000 — so meeting clients in person, taking them out to lunch and earning their trust can make or break a sale. For years, Cahill had another plant on Long Island, and he’d fly between here and there before moving the company to Queensbury full-time five years ago, he said.
“That’s been my Volkswagen Beetle going back and forth for years,” Cahill said. “I use that as my commuting tool.”
Sometimes he goes on a “tour,” visiting 10 customers that are within 200 miles of one another in one trip. A single-stop trip that would be 14 hours in a car becomes three hours when he travels by air. He may fly out to pick customers up and bring them back to his plant to see a machine, or fly somewhere to look at a used machine, he said.
Dr. Saunders co-owns a medical practice with five primary treatment offices split among Warren, Washington and Essex counties. But when he started an independent medical examination company as well, offices popped up in Utica, Plattsburgh and Newburgh. He has been flying six to eight days a month to one of those locations, booking an entire day of clients when he’s there.
Saunders began flying five years ago, obtaining a pilot’s license primarily as a way to get to work. The Newburgh office is completely aviation-dependent — Saunders wouldn’t have opened it if he didn’t fly, he said.
“It’s much easier for me to fly myself,” he said. “It’s superb for the type of aviation I do.”
The public can’t fly
The runway expansion at Warren County airport has been a hot-button issue, and played a defining role in this year’s election. Queensbury at-Large Supervisor Mark Westcott, who founded the group Upstate New York Taxpayers Advocates, leads the opposition to the expansion and questions how beneficial it would be, when weighed against its cost.
A 2010 state Department of Transportation report indicates the annual economic impact of the local airport at about $8.4 million, a finding opponents have also questioned.
The county qualified for $8 million in Federal Aviation Administration funds, with a $400,000 county match, for the 1,000-foot expansion of the main runway. Supporters argue it’s a good investment, especially with most of the money coming from the federal government. But opponents say it’s all taxpayer money, and the airport at its current size could be run at a lower cost than a larger one.
Earlier this year, the Warren County Board of Supervisors voted to create an airport advisory committee, which is charged with finding ways to better market the airport. Bartholomew sees that as “a positive,” and said EDC will be part of it.
Warren County airport has about 50 aircraft based there currently, a number soon expected to grow to meet demand. The planes are predominately single- and twin-engine aircraft and turboprops, with a few jets, Airport Manager Ross Dubarry said.
One line of new hangars has been constructed, and as of Friday, airport officials were waiting only for the power to be turned on. Another line of hangars is coming, because the airport’s fixed-base operator, Rich Air, has a waiting list of aircraft owners who want space, Dubarry said.
Officials said earlier this year that Rich Air, headed by local developer Richard Schermerhorn, spent more than $1 million on renovations at the airport, including construction of the new hangar building.
Flights from the airport are used to get to business meetings, for shipping cargo, for pleasure and recreation and for police and medical purposes. Generally, the base aircraft are used for business or recreation or a combination of the two, Dubarry said.
But the 72-year-old local airport hasn’t been used for commercial service in years. When airlines were deregulated in the 1970s, it essentially gave airlines the ability to determine which markets to serve.
The Essential Air Service program was then put in place by the federal government, subsidizing some commercial flights to larger hubs to ensure smaller communities were still being served. Warren County was transitioning between carriers at the time the program was put into place, and got left out, Dubarry said.
The Northway was completed at about the same time.
Expansions at other county-owned airports in upstate New York within the past decade resulted in commercial service being offered from them to air travel hubs.
The Jefferson County-owned and operated Watertown International Airport in recent years underwent runway and passenger terminal expansions, and American Eagle Airlines last year began direct service from Watertown to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, where travelers can catch flights to destinations worldwide. That corner of the North Country has seen a development boom from Fort Drum.
Both Watertown and Plattsburgh International Airport are close to the northern border, and Canadian travelers are part of those markets. Allegiant Air operates flights from Plattsburgh International Airport to Las Vegas and several locations in Florida. There is also direct service from Plattsburgh to Myrtle Beach and Boston.
The demand for commercial service is driven by local demographics, and without the guarantee of a federal subsidy, it seems unlikely air carriers would be willing to compete with Albany International Airport by flying out of Warren County, Dubarry said.
“But you never know what the future holds,” he said.