The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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April 7, 2013

Greenbrier tower’s fate up in the air

Stop-gap measures anticipated

— Hoping that the nation’s budgetary gridlock can be broken within the next few months, the Greenbrier Valley Airport may resort to stop-gap measures to keep its air-traffic control tower open.

One temporary solution to the imminent threat of the tower’s closure hinges on coming up with the estimated $250,000 it will take to fund the air-traffic control facility until Oct. 1, when the Federal Aviation Administration’s new fiscal year begins.

“Hopefully, the budget crisis can be worked out by then,” said airport manager Jerry O’Sullivan.

He commended Greenbrier County Commission President Karen Lobban for placing the funding issue on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting, saying if the commissioners agree to allocate $100,000 toward the tower, he believes the airport can come up with the balance needed.

“If we can get some support from the county commission, that will go a long way toward seeing to it that the tower remains open,” O’Sullivan said.

If the tower closes, pilots would have to coordinate takeoffs and landings at Greenbrier Valley among themselves, a situation that poses a safety risk, especially during the airport’s high traffic days, according to O’Sullivan. The airport sees as many as 400 flights on its busiest days.

“If the tower is closed and dismembered, with no one working there and the equipment moved out, it may not be reconstituted after the FAA works its budget out,” O’Sullivan warned. “The idea is to prolong the time the tower remains in operation to give everyone in Washington time to get the federal funding back in place so we don’t end up without a tower.”

Late Friday afternoon, O’Sullivan received notice of a little unexpected breathing room from the FAA, although it was not the full reprieve he had hoped for.

“The FAA was going to sequentially close all the towers,

starting April 7 and ending May 5, but now, all the towers (on the closure list) will be closed on June 15,” he said.

“It does buy us about five weeks,” O’Sullivan allowed, but added, “We’re still under the gun.”

In making the announcement of the delay in beginning the shut-downs, the FAA said it needs more time to deal with legal challenges to the air-traffic control tower closures, according to an Associated Press report.

The Greenbrier County Airport Authority is also looking at the various lawsuits that have been filed by operators of other airports and by the U.S. Contract Tower Association. A decision by the county authority on whether to join any of those suits will probably be made during the agency’s regular quarterly meeting, slated for April 15, O’Sullivan said.

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Lobban confirmed Friday that she intends to bring the tower funding issue to a vote during Tuesday’s regular commission session.

“I have no idea if the other commissioners will go along with me or not, but I will make a motion to give (the airport authority) $100,000,” Lobban said, noting the money would come from the county’s arts and recreation fund.

The airport’s ties to the county’s tourism industry are undeniable, with O’Sullivan estimating some 60 percent of the facility’s air traffic is directly linked to the nearby Greenbrier resort.

With Greenbrier Valley on the FAA’s list of towers slated for closure, and the appointed date looming, resort chairman and CEO Jim Justice told The Register-Herald earlier this week, “This is very detrimental to the resort.”

Lobban pointed out that the continued health of The Greenbrier is in the county’s best interest. The resort is Greenbrier County’s largest single employer, with an estimated 1,800 employees at the height of tourist season.

“If The Greenbrier’s in jeopardy, that means the county is in jeopardy,” Lobban said, emphasizing the importance of keeping the resort’s annual Greenbrier Classic PGA tournament and the millions of dollars it pours into the local economy.

Lobban noted that most of the hotel/motel occupancy taxes that make up the county’s arts and recreation fund come from The Greenbrier. The resort collects the 3 percent bed tax — totaling around $1 million annually — and remits it to the county, which then splits the revenue between the Greenbrier County Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) and the arts and rec fund.

Lobban said of the tower-funding measure she intends to bring to the commission floor on Tuesday, “I don’t know if it’ll fly or not.”

Neither does Commissioner Michael McClung, who also serves on the airport’s governing board, the Greenbrier County Airport Authority.

“I can’t say how I will vote,” McClung said. “The county commission, as a group, has not discussed this issue yet. I assume we’ll have that discussion during the meeting on Tuesday.”

He noted that the county’s arts and rec committee has scheduled a meeting for 5 p.m. Monday during which it will vet applications from various nonprofit organizations before the commission decides on which ones will receive grants from the arts and rec fund.

“The discussion at that meeting may have a bearing on the commission’s decision (on helping to fund the tower),” McClung said.

Last month, the commission set aside $450,000 for grants from the arts and rec fund balance, which then stood at just over $1 million. State law restricts expenditure of hotel/motel occupancy taxes to only a handful of uses, mostly centering on tourism-related enterprises.

Commissioner Woody Hanna said of the tower funding proposal, “I’ve got an open mind toward it, if we’re pretty sure it’s just a stop-gap measure. The arts and rec wouldn’t be able to fund this year-round.”

Hanna also said he is hesitant to take further action involving the arts and rec fund until a lawsuit currently pending can be resolved. That suit challenges the legality of the commission’s decision late last year to allocate $1.3 million in bed tax money for renovation of an indoor swimming pool on the grounds of New River Community and Technical College’s Greenbrier Valley campus.

“We’ve got to come to some conclusion with the pool,” Hanna said. “The arts and rec (fund) hinges on what we do with this pool.”

That said, Hanna added that he does understand the urgency of the airport tower situation and the impact the loss of the tower could have on The Greenbrier.

“We’ve got to help The Greenbrier,” he said. “The Greenbrier is too important to our economy to ignore this. We wouldn’t have an arts and recreation fund without The Greenbrier.”

— E-mail: talvey@register-herald.com

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