County discusses funds for airport

A little more than three years ago, the county set aside $9.25 million to help expand San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport, including a new terminal and parking garage.

That was during what turned out to be the tail end of the nation’s — and the county’s — salad days.Not long after, the economy went south, and some of the airport’s grandiose plans headed that way as well. The terminal was cut back; the parking garage disappeared.

Last week, county Supervisor Bruce Gibson raised a question: If the terminal and parking lot have been cut back, do airport managers still need that $9 million? And if, so, for what purpose?He was asking, Gibson said, because the county is hurting financially. It faces a $17 million shortfall in the 2010-2011 budget. If the airport can’t justify holding on to the money, perhaps other, ailing parts of the county’s body politic could use it, Gibson suggested.

Gibson made clear he was not threatening to take back the money. He said he was just giving airport managers “a little nudge.”

“We were on the verge of charging ahead” with a new terminal and parking structure, and now those plans have changed, he said. “It’s time for them to come back with a work plan.”

The county administrator’s office assured the Board of Supervisors that it will return later in the year to discuss “options and possible improvements to the airport.”

“We are looking at capital improvements which are reduced in scope and cost,” Administrative Analyst Vince Morici wrote in an e-mail to The Tribune.

Gibson’s call for more information about the airport’s future underscores an unwelcome, continuing trend of contraction that is a marked departure from the enthusiasm with which the county looked at expanding its airport mid-decade.

In fiscal year 2007-08, the county earmarked $9.25 million for a new parking structure. The possible uses of the money were later expanded to include a new passenger terminal and other capital improvements.

“At that time, these improvements were planned to be constructed over the following five years,” Morici wrote.

As passengers cut back on flying and the airlines flew less to San Luis Obispo, the airport increasingly felt the economic pain.

The county dumped its parking garage plans in February 2009, although it did put forth a scaled-back project to improve parking.

It received the board’s go-ahead to spend $400,000 on that, for design, and has spent $150,000.

“The expenditures were for architects and parking system consultants (who) developed options for improving parking and parking control systems at the airport,” Morici wrote.

The airport also spent money for “preliminary design concepts” for a new terminal, which included consulting studies.

There also were leftover expenses from early airport terminal designs.

“When all of the expenses were tallied, they were $500,000 greater than the revenue to pay for them,” Morici wrote.

Airport managers asked for, and received half a million dollars last week to “close out” that chapter in the airport’s development plans.

“The $500,000 will allow the airport to balance its overall budget,” Morici wrote. “This will allow the airport to start the next (fiscal) year with a budget that is not in the red.”

At the moment, Morici wrote, “The terminal project is on hold, (and) options related to parking at the airport are being developed.”

“One option is to develop parking improvements in phases to match the available funding,” he wrote.

“The airport,” he went on, “is trying to balance development of future improvements and how these improvements can help attract new businesses and air service at the airport with the current and potential future economic circumstances.”

He said previous studies showed that the airport contributes to the overall economic well-being of county businesses and residents.

“We are working to identify reasonable and economically sound alternatives to the original plans (that) will allow the airport to phase improvements over time,” he wrote.

He said the time frame will be tied to the airport’s ability to generate revenue.

Reach Bob Cuddy at 781-7909.