October 1, 2008

State Money Splits Airport Advocates in La Crosse

By Paul Snyder

La Crosse Municipal Airport officials don't have an expansion plan in mind, but they'll take $379,000 in state and federal money to consider a project anyway.

"I don't think there will be anything too soon," said Alderman Jim Bloedorn, who serves on the city's Aviation Board. "This city is more concerned about the bottom line than it is about general service."

Gov. Jim Doyle last week committed the money to the airport for an engineering study on potential expansion or improving the airport's bathrooms.

Airport Manager Dan Wruck said the expansion work has yet to be planned because the airport needed the study to know what it could do. He said the airport's terminal could be in line for "substantial changes."

Opponents argue the real help is needed outside the terminal.

"The hangar buildings we have today are near the end of their useful life," said pilot Michael Scaletta, who serves on the city's Aviation Board. "When you've got expensive airplanes, you want to keep them from the elements, especially in the kind of winters we have."

The Aviation Board this year rejected a proposal to build a new hangar, with airport officials and other opponents arguing there is not enough use to justify the estimated $600,000 price tag.

Scaletta said those opponents should realize they have to spend money to make money.

"You have to have excellent facilities to attract business," he said. "There's no reason this airport can't be a nice hub, but it just isn't. It could be so much better utilized."

Wruck said the needs inside the terminal are more pressing. Following federal safety standard changes at airports after Sept. 11, La Crosse's security checkpoint was reconfigured so even nontravelers had to go through the checkpoint if they wanted to use the bathroom.

Moreover, Wruck said, the terminal doesn't have adequate seating options for passengers waiting for flights.

"I would think anyone who travels would like a seat to sit in," he said, "as well as convenient airport facilities to use."

The airport has survived seven years since Sept. 11 without making the changes, Bloedorn said, so he sees no pressing need to tackle changes now. He said he sides with those pushing for hangar improvements.

"I remember some of these buildings from when I used to fly with my dad," he said. "I'm 65 years old now. He stopped flying when I was 6."

Wruck said the state and federal money must be used for security upgrades in the terminal, although he could not offer a timeline for the upgrades or when the study might take place.

Bloedorn said it's time the city started caring a little more about the people who use the airport.

"There's just not enough emphasis on aviation in La Crosse," he said. "A few years ago, they cut out the 15-minute parking grace period for people waiting to pick someone up. They said they couldn't afford it.

"I went to Milwaukee, and they didn't have 15 minutes, either. They had 30. What does that tell you?"

Originally published by Paul Snyder.

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