Niagara County officials are pushing hard to take control of the Niagara Falls International Airport in what may be the biggest structural challenge to the NFTA since it was created in 1967 to run transit-related activities in the two counties.
At a meeting this week of the NFTA aviation committee, Niagara County Industrial Development Agency officials pressed their case for taking over the Falls airport, which is universally described as the neglected step-child of the NFTA's two-airport system.
The NFTA has been exploring privatization of the airport and plans to hire the state-run Empire State Development Corp. as a consultant, but IDA officials, who claim to be speaking for the Niagara County business and political community, say it isn't enough. "We want to work with you, but we want control of the facility," said IDA Chairman William G. Mayne. "To not say that upfront would be less than candid."
Mayne and John R. Simon, IDA executive director, have prepared a plan that calls for their agency to obtain a 40-year lease from the NFTA for the facility and would then subcontract with other partners to market and operate the airport and some adjacent developable property.
An IDA takeover would be unprecedented, said one expert who asked not to be identified. Although there are cases of IDA's taking over surplus military bases, none have tried to operate or market an airport. It also would remove a major part of the NFTA's presence in Niagara County, leaving it with a few bus routes that serve Niagara Falls.
Niagara IDA officials envision an airport that would become an important regional cargo center, flying out fresh produce and other goods from throughout Western New York and Southern Ontario, and importing items such as seafood. It also could house maintenance operations for airlines.
"We want to go with this as soon as humanly possible," Simon said. "Historically there has been no activity up there and we'd like to turn that around."
Although NFTA officials acknowledge the Falls airport has not been promoted in the past, they say the agency has changed its attitude with
new commissioners who support Niagara interests including Chairman Luiz F. Kahl, who spent 16 years as chairman of Carborundum Co. in Niagara Falls, and Henry M. Sloma, a former chairman of the Falls Chamber of Commerce.
"I understand the level of frustration with people in Niagara Falls about that airport," Kahl said, "but it's not the case anymore because we're actively pursuing the privatization of the airport and we have a terrific interest in getting that done."
Kahl said he welcomes the participation of the IDA and other Falls leaders in developing a plan for privatizing the airport, but he does not support the NFTA abandoning its leadership role to the IDA. "I don't perceive us leasing the airport to them so they can go out and lease to a third party," he said. "I feel that's an unnecessary step."
The NFTA instead wants Empire State Development Corp. to furnish advice on how to privatize the Falls airport as the state is in the process of doing at Stewart Airport outside Newburgh. IDA officials, however, say the Stewart process has taken three years already and is not completed yet.
"We believe if the Niagara County IDA entered into a lease operation with the NFTA we could get things moving in the short term vs. three- to five years," Simon said.
He added the IDA already has two potential customers it is working with that are interested in using space in and around the Falls airport, one of which is considering a maintenance facility by the end of next year.
NFTA officials replied they want to work with the IDA to complete those deals regardless of how discussions turn out about who will manage the airport.
"If there's a specific proposal or entity that needs to get done, let's get moving on it," said Lawrence M. Meckler, NFTA executive director. "You don't need a lease or sale to move ahead with a business opportunity."
IDA officials were clear, however, that the Niagara community now wants control over the airport's fate.
"We're hoping to provide a different kind of leadership closer to the stakeholders," Simon said. "We believe the IDA is closer to the stakeholders."
The IDA leaders asked that NFTA commissioners and administrators meet in Niagara Falls in mid-December to further discuss their airport plan with a delegation of Falls elected officials, business people and labor leaders.