South Lake Tahoe Airport

Friday, October 29, 2004
Tahoe can learn from other small airports
By Susan Wood
The Tahoe (CA) Daily Tribune

South Lake Tahoe airport advocates may want to look south if they want revenues to go north. While the city is knee deep in a study to explore new ways to make the local airport a viable entity and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency agreeing to changes this week that accommodate that direction, other airports may take center stage to compare their practices.

Plans at the airport include building a city hall and exploring industrial park offices.

The Santa Maria Public Airport District has found ways to generate revenue. Some are out of the realm of most aviation-related activities and others are right up the alley.

The Central Coast airport district services 85,000 people in the town. More than 140,000 people live within the jurisdiction’s 400 square miles.

The Central Coast district was mentioned as an ideal case study in a resort airport conference at Embassy Suites last week in which 18 people from airports across the nation listened to consultant Fred Davis.

Among them was Mindy Johnke of Superior Aviation, the flight base operator at the lake.

“I got a lot out of it,” she said of the conference.

Local airport advocates have collected signatures on a petition with the idea of forming a district here. The topic came up when the airport tower subsidy by the city was in danger. It has since been closed because the Federal Aviation Administration doubled the city’s portion of the cost-sharing agreement. This expense proved too high for the cash-strapped city.

According to General Manager Gary Rice, Santa Maria pays nothing to run its tower because of the FAA formula that rewards airports with commercial service.

Santa Maria’s total revenue adds up to $2.8 million to run the small resort airport, where Skywest flies in and out of. This is despite heavy competition from Santa Barbara to the south and San Luis Obispo to the north. These airports have American, United and America West providing service.

But aviation operations is not where Santa Maria bankrolls the bulk of its revenue.

“Without land and tax dollars, I can’t imagine how airports would survive without a subsidy from the city or someone,” Rice said.

To fund operations on the 2,500-acre airport built in 1942, Santa Maria’s airport district receives $300,000 in land leases from farmers every year to grow strawberries and broccoli. It also collects money from 94 units at a mobile home park on the airport’s 13 acres. In addition, a small business park turns over $8,000 a month in rent.

It may be a good thing Santa Maria doesn’t put all its eggs in one basket.

If Proposition 1A passes in Nov. 2, special districts like the one formed to support an airport in Santa Maria will lose 40 percent of their property tax revenue amounting to about $320,000 annually.

Proposition 1A represents a compromise worked out between the Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and local governments in which the latter would give up $2.6 billion over the next years in exchange for the state pledging to refrain from future takeaways of money designated to cities and counties.