Officials seek funding to subsidize air service provider
Date posted: February 11, 2014
SHERIDAN — The Board of County Commissioners approved a resolution at its staff meeting Monday that will start the process of improving commercial air service in Sheridan County.
The resolution said the commissioners approve of the Critical Air Service Team filing an application to receive funds from the state in order to subsidize air service at Sheridan County Airport. The Critical Air Service Team is a nonprofit organization comprised of local citizens and government officials that was formed to help establish reliable air service for the county.
CAST will apply for $1.5 million from the Wyoming Air Service Enhancement Account, which is managed by the Wyoming Department of Transportation, Aeronautics Division.
The resolution also states that Sheridan County and Johnson County will contribute a combined $700,000 in matching funds for a total subsidy amount of $2.2 million per year. At this point, Sheridan County will be responsible for $539,000. Funds are expected to come from the county, the city of Sheridan and donations from businesses and private citizens in a model that is similar to how Cody subsidizes air service. County Administrative Director Renee Obermueller said the county currently has a draft contract with SkyWest Airlines, a regional carrier, to provide scheduled air service between Sheridan and Denver.
“Timing is of the essence given the current climate of our carrier and the loss we’ve seen in canceled flights,” Obermueller said. “It’s pretty critical right now.”
Obermueller said the county is not bashing Great Lakes Airlines, Sheridan’s current airline service.
A study done in 2008 showed that the county needed to start looking at subsidizing air service to meet growing demand, but it wasn’t ready at that point.
“I think the pull back was that it required participation monetarily from the community, from the local government to private citizens, so we have never reached that point until now,” Obermueller said. “The airline industry has changed dramatically. C.A.S.T. was formed in 2012, and at that time, we were told by the State Aeronautics Commission that we needed to show them that our community was behind the effort.”
Obermueller said it was originally decided that the county would pursue a subsidy program in its 2015 budget session, especially when Gov. Matt Mead requested additional funds for the Air Service Enhancement Account in this year’s budget request.
However, it was discovered that the extra funds would be dedicated to the four Wyoming communities currently in the program, Obermueller said.
At the Legislative Forum held by Sheridan County’s local delegation in January, several legislators encouraged the county to pursue extra funds now, especially since a budget session is the ideal time to ask for more money if it’s needed.
Last week, Sheridan County Commissioners met with Johnson County Commissioners and members of Forward Sheridan, C.A.S.T. and the Sheridan and Johnson county chambers of commerce to discuss subsidizing air service.
Around that same time, the county received data from another study done on air service and learned that 60 percent of flights at the airport consist of in-bound flights, indicating that the airport is used often for tourism.
“The airport is huge for economic development and tourists. If they can’t get here, there is fear we’re going to lose them,” Obermueller said.
Johnson County, recognizing the need to support Sheridan County Airport in order to support its own economy and tourism, has agreed to contribute to the subsidy.
The request for $1.5 million in air service enhancement funds will be considered by the appropriations committee during the session of the Wyoming Legislature that began Monday.
Obermueller also said Rep. Rosie Berger, R-Big Horn, and Sen. John Schiffer, R-Kaycee, have pledged to support the request.
While waiting to hear if the request is successful, the county will begin to determine how much support can be raised by local government while C.A.S.T. members seek support from businesses and private individuals.