While the new airport director prefers a more cautious approach to adding funding to the Quad-City International Airport, the Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce’s new leader is pushing for more regional support right out of the gate.
With a recent decline in enplanements, and a historically limited taxing authority, both of the new Quad-City leaders are looking at options to increase the airport’s funding. In separate conversations with the Quad-City Times editorial board, Chamber CEO Paul Rumler and Airport Executive Director Ben Leischner both said changes are needed to maintain and expand the airport.
“My end goal of where I want (the airport to be) is to be self-sustaining — to find a way to generate fees for the airport that are fair for people actually using the facilities,” said Leischner, who was appointed in late May.
Dropping passenger numbers have been a trend for the past few years, and the airport finished last year with a 7 percent decline in passengers. So far this year, the numbers have been looking better.
But expanding the airport’s taxing district has been up for debate for decades. Under the current law, the Rock Island County Metropolitan Airport Authority may only levy taxes from taxpayers in seven of the 18 townships.
“Four years ago, we had high peak travel at the Quad-City airport, and since we hit that peak, it’s been a substantial cliff,” Rumler said. “It might be the routes provided or the price point they’re at. But how do we compete with that? Funding might help. It might not help. But I believe at the essence of this, it is a regional airport that is not being supported regionally.”
Last legislative session, the Quad-City airport joined the Central Illinois Regional Airport Authority in Bloomington and the Chicago Rockford Metropolitan Airport Authority in Rockford in filing a bill aimed at expanding the taxing district county-wide. The proposed bill did not advance past the Rules Committee, but similar actions have been successful elsewhere in Illinois, including in Peoria.
Leischner said regional, bi-state funding would be ideal for the airport, but politics could make it difficult to accomplish in the near future. He said a “building block” approach is needed, and a bill similar to that proposed last session could be an appropriate first step, adding equity within Rock Island County is most important.
“I think if those airports are the ones pushing (the bill), then it makes a lot of sense for us to support them,” he said. “We need to work with our constituents to make sure everybody understands what’s happening. And it’s understanding if their (those airports’) issues truly are what our issues are.”
When first asked about airport funding, Rumler said “regional support was the easy answer.” He said it’s not something that should be “stair stepped” and has publicly supported expanding the tax base to include other surrounding counties, such as Henry, Scott and Muscatine.
“You have to look at how the airport is currently funded. It’s not direct funding from local governments. It’s funded from property taxes,” Rumler said. “We should be open to looking at it rather than the responsibility of seven townships. It could be a lesser burden on those taxpayers by opening that up.”
Leischner said more tax revenue could lead to lower costs for airlines and position the airport for future development or increased air service.
While both want to see a county-wide taxing district, neither Rumler nor Leischner cited specific goals for gaining more funding. Rumler said it could include expanding the existing airport authority, creating a port authority, passing an intergovernmental agreement, or finding funds elsewhere. Leischner cautioned against a port authority or too much political control over the district.
The new airport director mostly focused on user fees and other ways to generate money and attract customers. He discussed a cost recovery model where airlines are charged for what they use. He also said the airport could begin offering self-serve fuel stations to compete with cheaper fuel prices at other nearby airports.
“I’m much more of a proponent for user fees, like parking and what you’re using at the terminal, and funding things that way, versus blanket taxes for everybody,” Lesichner said.
While he’s slowly tackling the taxing issue, Leischner said he’s focused on making use of the airport’s capacity and taking advantage of development opportunities.
“I want the airport to be unique as an experience for travelers and people in the area,” he said. “We have a lot of industrial space around the airport, and have the opportunity to find something that’s very interesting that can be a draw to the airport.”