Aspen’s business leaders are aiming to counteract local criticism of the ongoing master planning process to revamp the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport.
Airport officials have been working on a new master plan for the airport that has included 50-plus public meetings since early 2011. They expect it to be adopted by the county commissioners by the end of this summer.
The plan’s current iteration includes a new 80,000-square-foot terminal, a new 750-car underground parking garage, and a new fixed-based operator facility for the airport’s west side.
In a meeting with the board of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association on Tuesday, airport director Jim Elwood offered an update on the master planning process. He signaled that it’s almost done.
“We’re nearing completion,” Elwood told the chamber. “We’re down to conceptual ideas that have to be refined and focused.”
In June, Elwood and airport planning consultants are expected to submit dollar figures for what building the master plan would cost. The plan may be ready for a commissioner vote by August.
A stream of negative public feedback on the plan in recent months has re-shaped the scope. Elwood noted the master planners shrunk the underground parking facility and new private airplane hangars in response to the community feedback.
ACRA’s board members, who have been far quieter on the expansion than its detractors, said Tuesday they would begin speaking out for it.
“We don’t want you to get run over by the naysayers,” said outgoing board chair Warren Klug.
Klug referred to the airport as the “the gateway to our community,” and stressed the need for improvements there.
He also urged chamber members to support the master planning process. He indicated the board would likely vote to endorse whatever final master plan Elwood submits to the county commissioners.
Aspen Skiing Co. Vice President David Perry, meanwhile, urged business leaders to rapidly respond to criticism of the plan.
“We sit on the sidelines sometimes,” he said, adding that ACRA members should get more involved in the process as the master plan nears its final stretch.
The master plan has met resistance from a group of vocal locals in recent months, largely focused on the size of the terminal — which would grow from 45,000 square feet to 80,000 — and whether an overhaul is necessary.
Pitkin County Commissioner Michael Owsley, who represents the county on the ACRA board, said that the community feedback to the commissioners at meetings has been largely negative. He urged ACRA members to get more involved in the process if they support it.
“Those concepts need support from the business community,” he said. “It’s viewed as a government project but it’s really in support, virtually, of all businesses in the community. It deserves the support of the business community.”
Klug talked about recently improved small airports in mountain towns like Bozeman, Mont. and Jackson Hole, Wyo. which have infused a welcoming spirit in their terminals.
“We don’t have that feeling in our airport, and we could use those changes that you’re talking about,” Klug told Elwood.
Board member Bill Tomcich, the president of Stay Aspen Snowmass, said that locals might resist change at the airport because they do not fly during on-season travel times, when its inadequacies are most evident.
“A lot of locals don’t necessarily have the experience of flying in and out of the airport during peak travel season. ... When things are crazy at the airport, it’s not a pleasant experience,” he said.
In his presentation, Elwood said that private aviation flights are unlikely to increase as a result of new private plane facilities.
Elwood said 10 companies are seeking to develop the second fixed-based operator at the airport — the company that provides gas and maintenance to planes. Atlantic Aviation is currently the only operator on the airport grounds. It’s most likely a second one will be added in the master planning process.
Elwood was quick to note that having a second operator is not believed to drive an increase in private flights in and out of Aspen. People would not likely come to a remote airport like Aspen’s to do maintenance on airplanes, unless they are already coming here to visit the resort.
“We don’t see that this will increase activity at the airport,” Elwood said, adding that the number of private flights has been flat or declining here over recent years.
While the number of commercial passengers flying in and out of the airport is expected to increase dramatically in coming years, Elwood said general aviation use isn’t expected to grow.
“We don’t see that the number of [private] airplanes being drawn to our community, with any of these changes, really shifts,” he added.