The old adages "nothing's free" and "the buck stops here" must have really hit home to a select group of taxpayers in Peoria County at the tail end of last year. Businesses and residents in the communities of Peoria, Bartonville, Peoria Heights and West Peoria learned that their property taxes will be increased to support the cost of operations at the Greater Peoria Regional Airport, a stinging blow, but not unexpected action on the heels of the Airport Authority's much-lauded and appreciated removal of parking fees.
From nearly any angle, it looks like the cost burden for free parking has landed disproportionately like a regional jet on the backs of those taxpayers located in the Airport Authority's taxing district.
It was our opinion (and still is) that instituting free parking was a wise choice by the Authority. Declining passenger counts and the growing number of tri-County area travelers choosing the Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington was a just cause for concern and measured action. And although it's too early to tell if the new parking policy will result in a dramatic increase in air travelers departing from the GRPA, the response from regular business travelers so far has been very positive.
Looking to the future, simply put, without the benefit of financial support from throughout the Tri-County area, or at least from those who fly to and from the Peoria Airport, our Airport is at a severe competitive disadvantage. It takes money to make money and the Airport Authority has kicked into high gear their marketing efforts, along with hiring an airline consultant to attract other airlines and services to Peoria. Ridership numbers, too, are even more crucial as fallout from the merger of American and TWA plays out in smaller community airports. (Remember our loss of jet service and the recent Frontier Airline pull-out in Bloomington-both claiming unprofitability as the reason).
Much has been said about the multiplicity of government in the region. And whether or not you believe there are too many pockets of government with too many taxing bodies, it's almost impossible to dispute the gross inequities in the way the Airport is funded.
That only four communities make up the basis for the Airport's taxing district is archaic and not representative of the truly regional economy that exists here in Central Illinois. Each day, thousands cross the McCluggage and Murray Baker Bridges, for work and recreation. That was probably not the case when the Airport's taxing boundaries were established.
Not surprisingly, the Airport Authority's past funding overtures to Tazewell and Woodford Counties have been met less than enthusiastically by governmental leaders there. And who can blame them? This has been a major free ride for their businesses and citizens. Broadening the base of support will take strong leadership by a person or group willing to take the risk, to spend some serious political capital. There are several likely prospects, including the Economic Development Council, the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, the Tri-County Mayor's Association, the Heartland Partnership, and local legislators to name a few. But it will take a strong facilitator and leader willing to tackle an extremely tough political issue and a very hard sell.
Another solution might be implementation of a user fee that, unfortunately, sounds a lot like the parking fees recently eliminated. Similar to the way the Hotel Restaurant and Amusement Tax helps fund the operation of the Peoria Civic Center (which, not coincidentally, does not include tax receipts from establishments outside Peoria-proper) a user fee or ticket tax would allow the Airport Authority to get its support from those who use the facility. Again, a tough sell, a very politically sensitive remedy and perhaps a step backward.
Studies have been conducted that provide a valid argument for construction of an Airport located in a spot that would adequately serve second-tier air communities such as Peoria, Bloomington, Champaign, Decatur and Springfield. While the concept certainly has merit, we know that's not an economic or political reality. So those of us who reside and do business in the Tri-County Area must work as hard as possible to ensure the Peoria Airport is the airport of choice.
Now is the time to build on some positive momentum of the last few months. Thanks to the efforts of Congressman Ray LaHood, State Representative David Leitch and others, airlines operating at the Airport have reduced their fares by as much as 60 percent and enabled Peoria to compete more favorably with Bloomington's Airport. But it's clear that the funding inequities must be resolved if we are to truly keep the Greater Peoria Regional Airport strong. The four communities supporting the airport not only share disproportionately but beyond that–lack funds to expand and improve, which a broader base could provide-and weaken our future potential.
Ultimately, the upside of this latest development might be that it sparks action from area leaders. Beyond the Airport issue, it might stimulate a retrospective look at the state of the Tri-County region itself. For as much as we may boast about the benefits of a metro area of 335,000, it is increasingly evident that Peoria, the Center City, carries the heaviest load in supporting important infrastructure assets that are truly regional draws.
Businesses in this region can help make the difference. IBI