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A hard landing for Adirondack Regional Airport?  (Photo:  Wikipedia)
A hard landing for Adirondack Regional Airport? (Photo: Wikipedia)

Adirondack airport boasts big growth and faces talk of closure

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A new debate is underway over the future of the Adirondack Regional Airport in Lake Clear. Traffic at the airport is growing, with more than 11,500 passengers using Cape Air's commuter flights last year. Supporters say that brings a big boost to the Tri-Lakes economy.

But state and local officials also say cost overruns, mismanagement and a lack of political support for the airport could threaten its future.

Brian Mann has our story.

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Harrietstown supervisor Larry Miller says the airport that his tiny town operates is one of the big engines for the Adirondack economy. 

"It is an $8 million dollar economic impact to the Tri-Lakes.  And it's been shown that it provides 117 jobs either directly or indirectly to the Tri-Lakes.  Currently, there are more people flying in and out of Lake Clear than there were during the Olympics in 1980."

Last year, more than 11,000 passengers rode Cape Air’s commuter flights to Lake Clear – outpacing traffic to much larger communities like Ogdensburg and Massena. 

At a chamber of commerce gathering last week, Cape Air spokeswoman Jaqueline Donahoo announced last week that Cape Air plans to expand its flights next summer.

"Last summer we did add an additional flight to correlate with the need of the community," Donahoo said.  "This summer, since it went so well, we plan to add two additional flights, leaving you all with five flights [daily] for the summer season."

Chamber director Sylvie Nelson says the airport is a vital link for tourists and second homeowners and for business people working in the Park.

"Adirondack Regional airport is one of the economic drivers in our region.  If it were not for that facility, there it probably quite a bit of people who would not have second homes here and would not be able to access our region," Nelson argued.

But if these are the best of times for the Adirondack airport, they’re also the worst of times.  Last week, the state Comptroller’s office issued a scathing report suggesting that Harrietstown officials had mismanaged the airport.

"We were certainly concerned about how they managed their capital projects, the commingling of funds, and the fact that at the end of the day, the town's financial condition has been impacted by the very poor oversight," said Steve Hancox, a spokesman for the Comptroller.

Budget shortfalls at the airport over the last two years forced Harrietstown officials to approve double-digit property tax increases to cover the gap.

In an interview last week, town supervisor Larry Miller acknowledged that local officials are overwhelmed by the cost and complexity of running the facility.

"We have no business being here," he said.  "But I'm an average guy like you.  I don't know how to get out of it.  I don't know what to do."

Miller says Harriestown will now push for more neighboring communities to support the airport – or they’ll begin the process of shutting it down or downsizing its operations.

"It's time that Harrietstown took a strong stand, stood up to the plate, and said, 'We can't do this alone. You're either going to help us fund this, or we're going to do away with it.'"

This idea – forming some kind of regional airport authority – is popular with Harrietstown residents like Ray Scollin – who has criticized local officials for placing too big a burden on too few taxpayers.

"I think the airport is a positive thing for our economy, but when it gets strapped on one municipality...then one group of taxpayers really takes the major hit," Scollin said.

But the timing of Harrietstown’s appeal for more help couldn’t be worse.  

Franklin and Essex County are cash-strapped and Roby Politi, town supervisor in North Elba says officials aren’t looking to add big new projects to their budgets.

"We'd love to see all the contract agencies, all the outside operations move within a five year period to be able to look out for themselves, rather than rely on county funding," Politi said, noting that Essex County does contribute some funds to the airport currently.

One problem is that county leaders – in Malone and Elizabethtown – often use other airports, driving to Albany, Burlington, or Plattsburgh.

Tupper Lake village Mayor and Franklin County legislator Paul Maroun says it won’t be easy convincing leaders in the northern part of the county that the airport is worth supporting.

"Obviously it's not as immediate to them as it is to us.  I mean, they're forty miles away," he noted.

Lake Placid Essex County tourism director Jim McKenna says there are also questions about how significant the airport is for the region.

He pointed out that Cape Air flies small planes that can’t accommodate big groups or the kind of large sports teams that often travel to the Olympic region.

But McKenna says this is an important conversation to have.

"We're certainly willing to sit down with the town of  Harriestown and try to work out a plan where we can utilize that airport for greater benefit of the region."

Harriestown’s Larry Miller says he’s already asked his airport manager to begin drawing up a plan that could go either way – building on broader support from the region, or beginning the process of shutting down.

"The only thing we can do is make a plea to the towns and villages and counties, and say, 'What does Adirondack Regional Airport mean to you?'"

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