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West Bend loses runway project

Sean Ryan

West Bend officials worry their best chance to attract new businesses slipped away when the federal government killed a plan to expand the local airport.

The Federal Aviation Administration canceled (PDF) engineering studies for a plan to build a longer runway at West Bend Municipal Airport. The airport was originally built to make West Bend more competitive with other communities, said John Capelle, West Bend community development director, and the city wanted the project as a selling point to attract companies.

Longer runways, he said, accommodate larger jets.

“Will it have an impact long-term on business development? Yeah,” Capelle said. “The best analogy is the airport will remain a two-lane highway instead of a four-lane highway.”

Improving economic development is a common excuse for projects such as airport expansions, said Erin O’Brien, policy director of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association. The association opposed the project because extending the runway from 4,500 feet to 5,500 feet would have destroyed wetlands.

One reason for the FAA’s dismissal of the project is there are other, less damaging ways to promote development in the city, she said.

“It’s a narrow-minded way of thinking to assume that airport expansion is the only, or even the best, option for communities,” O’Brien said.

West Bend uses other tools, primarily tax-incremental financing, to attract new businesses, said Dennis Melvin, city administrator. For example, the city used TIF money to support development of a business park near the airport, he said.

The park’s property value is increasing, he said, but it is not generating as much tax revenue as the city projected when it spent the money on the business park.

“Everybody is doing what they can to try to get more business here,” Melvin said. “The airport is one component of economic development, but right now I don’t see us trying to do anything different.”

The West Bend Chamber of Commerce already was using the longer runway as a selling point when trying to attract employers, said Executive Director Craig Farrell. The city could now lose out to other communities with airports that can accommodate larger corporate jets and heavier payloads, he said.

“I have absolutely no idea what we’ll do now that the runway is not going to be expanded,” Farrell said.

The prospect of more development is not justification to pave over wetlands unless there is no other option that could achieve the same goal, O’Brien said. She said she would not offer alternatives because it is up to the local community, but she said wetlands can be an attraction because preserving them improves water quality and limits flooding.

“I guess it just depends on how creative they are willing to get,” she said.

Melvin said the city will continue with planned projects to improve the airport by repaving the runways. But he said there is nothing in sight that could create the same type of attraction that a longer runway would.

“I don’t know that there is (an alternative) right now,” he said. “The (FAA) decision just came out last week, so I don’t know that there’s anything we can do to counter that in another arena.”

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