Public should be invited to meeting about airport

When Thomas P. Nolan and Dino Theofilos -- note that we said "when" and not "if" -- meet with Mahoning County commissioners to discuss the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport's finances, they had better be prepared to justify the expenditure of every single public dollar. Why? Because the pull-out of USAirways Express has given critics even more ammunition.
Commissioners Edward Reese, Vicki Allen Sherlock and David Ludt asked for the meeting with Nolan, airport director of aviation, and Theofilos, chairman of the Western Reserve Port Authority, after they received a letter from Nolan seeking to reprogram $131,195 of Mahoning County money. The money was allocated for capital improvements, but the port authority has eliminated capital projects for the rest of the year and now wants to spend it for operation and maintenance of the airport.
Given that the issue of the airport's being self-sufficient is at the heart of the public debate about the facility's future, Nolan and Theofilos have no choice but to attend the session in Mahoning County. The commissioners have every right to delve into all aspects of the airport's finances -- and the public has every right not only to be present, but to ask questions and offer comments.
Terrorist attacks: This year, Mahoning and Trumbull counties allocated $454,263 for the operation and maintenance of the facility. However, Nolan has acknowledged that the recent downturn in air travel triggered by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, previous budgetary problems and increased utility costs have created the need for additional dollars.
"I just want to see where they're at financially," Commissioner Reese says. "You don't just request moving that much money without coming down and talking to us about it."
Nolan and Theofilos should regard the meeting as an opportunity to solidify the support the airport still enjoys in the Mahoning Valley. While the opponents have been vocal in their criticism of using Mahoning County funds to support an entity that is located in Trumbull County, thoughtful residents are aware that communities in this region are inextricably connected when it comes job-creation and other economic development issues.
Even with limited passenger air service, the airport remains a valuable tool in the Valley's push to become a player in the global economy. The development of an industrial park adjacent to the airport, the King Graves Road interchange and the $40 million worth of improvements, including extending the main runway and developing taxiways, make it clear that a regional cargo hub can be more than a dream. What is needed is a marketing strategy. We hope that the $45,000 study by a Washington, D.C., consulting firm provides Nolan and the port authority with a realistic strategy.
At the same time, the residents of the Valley deserve an honest appraisal as to the financial strength of the airport and its future viability.