Canyonlands Field Airport is moving forward with ambitious plans to expand the county-owned facility north of town.
“We are literally more than doubling the infrastructure of the airport,” Grand County Airport Manager Judd Hill told the county council during its meeting on Tuesday, May 2. “The next 10 months will more than double what we’ve done in the first 42 years of the airport.”
The airport secured funding last year from Utah’s Community Impact Fund Board, known as the CIB, for a new terminal building. Now Hill is in the final stages of finding the money to expand the runway – widening it by 25 feet and tripling its strength rating – and make it usable for the larger commercial jets that most carriers rely on. If all goes according to plan, that upgrade will be completed in April 2018.
The Federal Aviation Administration will pay for just over 90 percent of the runway expansion costs, estimated at $12.8 million in total. The Utah Department of Transportation will pay half of what remains, leaving Grand County responsible for the last $600,000.
Hill hopes to get a low-interest loan from the CIB before the August deadline for FAA grant applications.
“We have to have funding in place for match fundings to acquire that level of grant,” he explained.
The loan application was up for public comment during the special Municipal Building Authority session of the council’s meeting. Airport board member Bill Hawley emphasized the importance of the loan to the overall project.
“We are growing faster at our airport this year than in our entire history,” Hawley said. “This project is integral to us moving forward.”
“At 600 grand, it is a bargain,” he added. “It’s just way overdue, and time that we move forward.”
If the county receives a loan from the CIB, that loan will be paid off using revenue from the county’s Tourism, Recreation, Cultural, Convention and Airport Facilities tax, which adds a 1 percent surcharge to restaurant bills and 3 percent to car rentals.
“We will see a return of millions, if not tens of millions, of dollars,” Hill told the council.
“We do have a functioning airport now,” he continued, “and you can stop it all and say no. If you have that gut-check moment, this is kind of that final time to say no.”
But none of the council members objected to the proposed application.
Jaylyn Hawks, council chair, said in an interview afterward that she is “fully behind” the expansion.
“I think it’s something we have to do,” Hawks said. “We’ve made a commitment to this kind of economy … If we want that to continue to grow, I think we definitely have to enhance our airport operations. That will also be a good driver in diversifying the economy.”
In an interview after the meeting, Hill explained that the project could go forward even if the CIB denies the county’s request.
“There is a backup plan,” he said. “The project won’t be put on hold … It is possible to utilize already existing funds, but it would be better – more bang for your buck, in terms of making other things available for the county’s development – to try to get a loan.”
Completing the planned expansion would provide a significant economic boost to the county, he said.
“If we want economic diversification, reliable transportation is critical to that happening,” Hill said.
And it could help strengthen the county’s public services: “Whether you’re needing medical assistance, or law enforcement, or we’ve even had firefighting planes coming through here,” Hill noted.
“If everything goes as planned, 12 months from today you’d be able to fly in on a commercial jet,” he said. “About a thousand ducks need to line up in a row, but we’re on that track.”
Moab Area Travel Council Executive Director Elaine Gizler also believes the airport expansion will be an economic boon for the community.
“It’s something that we need desperately,” she said.
Having an easy link to major regional cities like Salt Lake City and Denver will draw tourists, she thinks, but also companies that previously might have considered Moab too remote for even a satellite office.
“I think it’s going to be really an important growth aspect for this area,” Gizler said. “I also think it’s going to help San Juan County as well. We open the corridor for this whole southeast area for growth.”
“How do we help families stay here and live here, and how do we help them to survive here?” she continued. “Because it’s very difficult, with all the service-industry jobs here and lack of affordable housing. Maybe this will help to bring some other industry, some other company here, that can offer higher-paying jobs for the people that are here.”
“I know that the planes bring more noise and could bring more people, but from my vantage point, looking at it from an economic development opportunity, that’s where I see the growth.”
Gizler and Hawks both had high praise for Hill’s efforts as airport manager. Gizler said Hill has been doing “an amazing job,” and Hawks described Hill’s work as “phenomenal.”
“He has really moved fast, effectively, efficiently on airport strategic planning,” Hawks said.
Hill’s job has changed greatly since he began. At the May 2 meeting, he also described to the council his proposed revisions to the official job description for his position, changes that reflected how he found himself “sitting in front of contracts more often than not.”
“I’ve got some amazing people working out here, and they’re exceptional at doing the operational level work,” he said afterward. “They can fix any possible thing out here … But it’s nothing to do with writing contracts and trying to negotiate aspects with TSA or FAA, or airlines or private entities.”
After starting his career as a research scientist, he didn’t expect to end up where he is today.
“If you had asked me 10 years ago where would I be in 10 years, I’m pretty sure I would have said a tenured professor, teaching, and not running an airport,” he said.
New runway would allow larger planes, increased service
If everything goes as planned, 12 months from today you’d be able to fly in on a commercial jet.