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Proposed Grand Canyon Airport Expansion

The Arizona Department of Transportation is evaluating the environmental impact of a plan to build a 41,000-square-foot terminal at the Grand Canyon airport.

ADOT officials say a new $13 million building will bring the terminal up to date with federal security regulations and present visitors with a better impression of the state of Arizona than the current aging building. It will also accommodate more passengers from commercial jets; the state’s goal is to contract with a commercial carrier and bring 57,000 new passengers through the ADOT-owned airport.

But opponents say the plan could kill businesses in Northern Arizona that depend on Grand Canyon tourism dollars. And they question whether noise from commercial jets will disturb the natural experience that visitors expect to have in the Grand Canyon.

Ash Patel, who owns two hotels in Flagstaff, says hotels, restaurants and an array of other businesses in Williams and Flagstaff – as well as other regional communities – would take a serious hit if tourists fly into the Grand Canyon and never enter the area around the park.

“A lot of people drive to the Canyon, and while they’re driving Arizona highways, they find out about Wupatki National Monument, Walnut Creek, Sunset Crater, Sedona and Lake Powell, and they decide to visit,” Patel said.

“Imagine this: you’re a tourist coming from China and you want to visit the Grand Canyon. You see this opportunity to fly into L.A. and fly straight to the Grand Canyon, visit the Grand Canyon, and then leave. You have no reason to see the rest of Arizona.”

Some tourists who have put the Grand Canyon on their “bucket list” may do just that, says John Nichols, director of the administrative services division for ADOT. But he says that’s not how most tourists prefer to see Arizona.

“They fly into Phoenix and rent a car or van and they go see the state of Arizona,” he said. “They’re not coming here just to see the Grand Canyon. They’re coming here to see Arizona and they want to see it on the ground.”

Last year, the airport began receiving daily 737-service from Las Vegas as part of a tour package. Nichols says 337,000 passengers boarded aircraft at the Grand Canyon airport in 2011, though most of those enplanements were helicopter tours.

“What really concerns us is we receive tens of thousands of foreign visitors that go through that terminal every year,” Nichols said. “That terminal actually represents Arizona. And what they see is a very outdated, old, less attractive facility and there’s nothing in the facility that represents Arizona itself.”

He says the goal is to promote the state’s attractions at the airport terminal so that tourists will return to other parts of the state. In addition, the airport will have space for restaurants and vendors.

Increased rents will help to support the airport’s operations, which last fiscal year lost $417,000, Nichols says.

But Patel says the only businesses that will benefit from the airport plan are those owned by Stilo Development Group, the Italian firm that plans to build hotels, resorts and housing on the southern edge of the Grand Canyon in the tiny community of Tusayan.

“Why would ADOT at this time, in this economy, decide to give money to an airport that’s losing money?” he asked. “You have one developer being given preferential treatment by taxpayer dollars that will take away significant economic prosperity from the surrounding communities.”

But Nichols says ADOT was working on the airport plan before Stilo’s newest development initiative was publicized.

“The goal of ADOT is to make this airport economically feasible,” he said. “It has nothing to do with Stilo.”

Over the next five years, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration will spend a total of $28 million on airport improvements, according to ADOT. The state will spend nearly $600,000 on the new terminal building, says ADOT spokesperson Ryan Harding.

In a letter to ADOT, the region’s bed and breakfast association implored state officials to instead spend transportation dollars on year-round road maintenance of Highway 180 and on improvements at Flagstaff’s airport.

“These monies should be diverted to insuring that our only regional airport here in Flagstaff has commercial flights. Use this money to subsidize more commercial flights to Flagstaff,” wrote Richard Svendsen, president of Distinctive Bed and Breakfasts of Northern Arizona, which represents 13 inns in Flagstaff and Williams.

Environmentalists also oppose the airport’s plan, fearing that increased commercial jets nearby will degrade the serenity of the Grand Canyon.

“That is a sound that is incompatible with a national park,” said Alicyn Gitlin, program coordinator for the Sierra Club’s Protect the Grand Canyon Campaign. “People come from all over the world to see the Grand Canyon. They appreciate hearing the sounds of nature, hearing birds and wind and thunder.”

The state’s environmental assessment will be complete in 2013. ADOT’s goal is to complete the terminal and other improvements within the next three to five years. FBN

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