North Country Airports Lift Regional Economy
June 13, 2017
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  • For many residents, they’re hidden from view as are the aircraft flying in and out of them.

    But the region’s airports help drive the local economy, boosting tourism, local commerce, search and rescue and evacuation operations, adding to the tax bases of towns, and, at times, helping to save lives. 

    One of them, the Mt. Washington Regional Airport (MWRA) in Whitefield, is set to celebrate its 70th birthday on June 24 and 25.

    As that facility looks back on its history in the North Country, state officials and local airport volunteers and representatives highlight the economic and other benefits of the region’s airports and their vision for the future.

    “Each airport has its own little niche,” said Tricia Lambert, administrator for the N.H. Bureau of Aeronautics, which works with federal, state and local aviation agencies to help N.H.’s airports plan, construct and maintain the safest and best possible air transportation system.

    “The access to the national airspace system is a very large part of what we’re trying to protect for communities,” she said.

    The N.H. State Airport System consists of 25 facilities, three for larger commercial service and 22 for local general aviation.

    In all, according to a state study, they support nearly 13,000 jobs and generate $32 million in state tax revenue. They also have an economic multiplier effect for regional economies in terms of their capital and operational expenditures, expenditures by tenants leasing hangars and space, and expenditures at area businesses, restaurants and lodging establishments by passenger-visitors and pilots.

    Among the North Country local aviation airports are the MWRA and Dean Memorial Airport in Haverhill, both public and federally funded, and the Gifford Field Airport in Colebrook and the Franconia Airport, both privately owned.

    According to state data, the MWRA provides an estimated annual economic output of $1.1 million to the region, the Gifford Field and Franconia airports an economic benefit of $750,00 each to their region, and the Dean Memorial a local benefit of about $130,000.

    “It’s fair to say that anything north of the Notch is mostly for tourism,” said Lambert.

    The MWRA along Hazen Road has five member towns – Whitefield, Lancaster, Littleton, Sugar Hill and Dalton – and annually sees some 7,000 flight operations, with 10 of them military, as well as several dozen civilian jet operations, according to a 2015 state study.

     In all, member towns contribute about $25,000 a year for maintenance and operations and the airport itself generates some $20,000 to $30,000 annually, mostly through hangar fees and fuel sales.

    “We are a destination airport,” said Jim Ash, vice-chairman of the volunteer MWRA Commission. “Why do people come here? A lot of them come here to stay at the Mountain View Grand or Mt. Washington Hotel, or the [Appalachian Mountain Club]. We do get people flying in for business once in a while, but I would say bulk of the the folks are flying in for some sort of tourism.”

    That tourism includes hiking the White Mountains as well as skiing, with enthusiasts of all interests visiting local businesses, and many staying several days or more.

    With the paper mills gone, tourism has become a critical part of the North Country economy, one state and local officials are looking to increase. 

    Lambert was involved in the planning for MWRA when the airport extended its 3,000-foot runway to 4,000 feet, which she said now better accommodates small jet traffic that in turn boosts the local economy.

    As MWRA celebrates its 70th year, Ash said the commission is trying to tighten its budget and raise public awareness.

    “We’ve had a number of people say they didn’t know there was an airport out there,” he said.

    In July, the MWRA is expected to break ground on a runway refurbishment project to repair cracks and put down new paint and markings. The project of several hundred thousand dollars will be mostly funded by the federal government.

    For capital improvements at the MWRA, the state and local communities pay 5 percent each and the federal government 90 percent. The Federal Aviation Administration money goes into a general aviation fund made up of portions of sales of commercial airline tickets and aircraft fuel sales.

    “We make a firm distinction between operating expenses and capital improvements and don’t lean on the towns for capital improvements,” said Ash.

    The majority of the MWRA operating budget comes from money collected from pilots with aircraft leasing hangars and contributions from the member towns.

    At one time, Ash said the MWRA had more than 20 member towns, a number that is now five.

    “I feel it’s a good model to have communities participate and provide funds to support the airport,” said Lambert. “It takes the burden off any one community and the goal is to provide the benefit to all communities.”

    In recent years, officials from some towns have debated what their communities get in return from the MWRA and if they should contribute. Future funding from member towns is not guaranteed, said Ash.

    He is hoping a new commission-managed airport and a tighter budget will attract support and former member towns to return.

    “The budget we are operating under now is similar to the one in the mid-’80s,” he said. “We’re trying to make it a lot more efficient.”

    The airport is essentially a volunteer effort, he said.

    The small and seasonal Franconia Airport, which Lambert called a niche airport, is largely the operations center and home of the Franconia Soaring Association, though it is not restricted to pilots of other aircraft wanting to use it.

    The people running private airports are devoted to aviation, and while private, they are open to the public, said Lambert.

    Providing more than tourism is Haverhill’s Dean Memorial Airport, one of the last airports to enter the federally funded system, said Lambert.

    In addition to being used for medical assistance, it hosts annual awareness days with exhibits for youth interested in aviation careers. To date, 887 children have been instructed, said Lambert.

    “Everybody who’s a pilot started to learn at a small airport,” she said. “It’s very important to provide access for young people, and that’s a really important feature of that airport. Airports are training grounds for future pilots.”

    If the redevelopment of The Balsams goes through, one facility that would see even more flights is the Gifford Field Airport.

    “It’s an unmanned airport, but there’s a lot of activity here,” said Doug Brooks, the airport’s manager. “We don’t do a lot in the winter, but during the summer it’s very busy. We have people going to Pittsburg and a lot of people fly in from Massachusetts to go fishing for a week. If there wasn’t an airport in Colebrook, people would notice the difference.”

    The airport, currently owned by Ian Stevenson and housing eight aircraft, was developed by his grandfather, Dr. Herbert Gifford in the 1960s.

     Today, it’s not just for tourism but also benefits one of Colebrook’s largest employers, Kheops International, a wholesale supplier of New Age gifts.

     “The airport was something they were thinking about when they moved in,” said Brooks.

    In addition, in partnership with the Department of Agriculture, it also provides a base for helicopters to help local dairy farmers by spreading a winter rye cover crop on their fields, he said.

    Other general aviation local airports include the Berlin Regional and general aviation basic airports are located in Errol, Gorham, and Twin Mountain.

    Not all flights for local commerce are done using corporate jets, and part of the business model for some companies is to use small non-jet aircraft to fly specifically into small airfields like the ones in Franconia, Haverhill, and Colebrook, said Lambert.

    Going forward, the state will continue to maximize the benefit of each of N.H.’s airports and improve safety, she said.

    “The airports are a very important piece of transportation infrastructure and it’s critical that we protect that infrastructure for future use,” said Lambert.