An Aspen-Pitkin County Airport communications team on Tuesday laid out an ambitious but preliminary plan for what’s being called a “community outreach approach” to guide the vision, development, design and construction of upgrades at the facility.
Airport Director John Kinney and public-relations consultant Kathleen Wanatowicz provided their ideas to Pitkin County commissioners during a work session on Tuesday. They discussed a “visioning process” for the airport’s future that will be shaped by stakeholders and community members serving voluntarily on four separate committees. Those who are considering participation on the committees will have 45 days to apply, starting next week.
Details were outlined in a Powerpoint presentation. The overarching committee, focusing on “overall project development,” will be called the Airport Visioning Committee, which could include between 20 and 25 members. Reporting to that committee will be three smaller “working groups” focusing on the stated areas of “community character,” “technical topics” and “airport experience.”
The committee and group work, expected to begin early next year, will coincide with public presentations, open houses, one-on-one outreach meetings and other activities such as “coffee chats” designed to gather general community input.
The process will rely on continual flow to the Airport Visioning Committee, whose task is to “prompt and respond” to the working groups and the public. Then, that main committee will make recommendations to commissioners, who will be the ultimate decision-makers on the scope of project. If commissioners give their official blessing to the vision, detailed design work and construction would follow. Commissioners’ feedback will be sought every step of the way, including during the visioning segment.
County Manager Jon Peacock, speaking a few hours after the meeting, said that the process surrounding the airport project will be a major undertaking.
“It is going to be big, but we’re going to try and make it manageable,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a really open and robust process.”
The airport’s future plans, conceptually, revolve around a runway project and construction of a new terminal. If realized, the price tag could be as much as $400 million, with federal grants expected to contribute over $150 million to the runway. It would represent one of the largest infrastructure initiatives on the Western Slope since the development of Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon.
Among other impacts, the airport may shut down for two straight months or longer, perhaps during a fall or spring off-season, to accommodate construction. The improvements would allow larger commercial jets, with bigger passenger loads, to access the airport.
After explaining the visioning process, Kinney and Wanatowicz asked commissioners if they are on the right track. The elected officials had questions and offered a few suggestions, but they basically signed off on the idea. Kinney said the visioning effort could take a year or less.
In interviews after the meeting, Kinney and Peacock said the visioning process will go out of its way to be inclusive.
“It doesn’t matter what your view is of the airport,” Kinney said. “With just about any view you could think of — closing the airport, expanding the airport, keeping it exactly as it is — you can find people inside all of those themes or more. We need balance. We need a real cross-representation of the community.”
Peacock compared it to the county’s recent project to expand and redesign its administration building on Main Street — not in terms of size and cost, but community feedback.
“Before we put pen to paper on the design, we found out what the community wanted,” Peacock said.
Wanatowicz explained during the work session that the communications team outlined a process that’s “easy to be a part of” with the goal of creating a vision for the airport “that will be sustainable for the next 30 years.”
Transparency and “factoring in all sides of the discussion” will be key to a successful process, she said.
“We simply want to make the experience better at the airport,” Wanatowicz told commissioners. “The ultimate vision will be developed through community dialogue and discourse. We want this to be a really fun and engaging process.
“It’s important to note that pen has not yet hit paper on the terminal design or the runway design,” she added. “We’ll be asking the community to bring their innovative ideas.”
In July, the Federal Aviation Administration approved the final environmental assessment for the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport’s proposed runway and terminal improvement projects, finding there would be “no significant impact” to the environment from redevelopment. The FAA’s notice, Kinney said at the time, clears the airport to shift its runway 80 feet to the west, widen it to 150 feet and strengthen it to allow up to 150,000 pounds of landing weight.
The airport’s Environmental Assessment, or EA, was submitted to the FAA in November 2017. It says that an expanded runway is necessary to accommodate a new generation of jets that will replace the smaller planes currently landing at the airport — and which will soon be outdated.
Peacock said there’s a community misperception that the EA approval signals the end of the planning process and that the county is getting close to design and construction. That couldn’t be farther from the truth, he said.
“Now, with the FAA’s approval of the Environmental Assessment, we get to step back and find out what the community wants the airport to be,” he said. “We’re going to have to have an ultimate vision for the [commissioners] to sign off on. There will be a lot of conversations along the way and check-ins with the board.
Commissioner Rachel Richards — who is term-limited and won’t be serving on the next incarnation of the Board of County Commissioners — cautioned that the committees shouldn’t be too “Aspen-centric.” She said that input from communities and caucuses throughout the county will be important.
Richards also suggested that project leaders provide clarity to those serving on the various volunteer committees so that they know, in advance, what will be expected of their service.
Commissioner Steve Child suggested that county consultants and staff shouldn’t steer committee members toward conclusions, something that may have occurred during the EA process.
“Don’t tell them how to think,” Child said.