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Wichita to proceed on new airport terminal

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, June 22, 2011, at 12:07 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, at 10:18 p.m.

Wichita is moving forward with a new terminal at Mid-Continent Airport after a nine-month delay.

The Wichita City Council voted 6-1 Tuesday to restart the process after putting it on hold in October because of the troubled economy.

The council originally voted in 2004 to build the $200 million project — $160 million for a terminal and $40 million for parking and rent-a-car facilities.

"From the cost of building the thing, this is probably the best time" because construction costs have bottomed out and are projected to start rising again, airport director Victor White told the council, which also acts as the Airport Authority.

"So if you wait ... you can only presume that in the future as the economy does improve, it will just cost more."

The new terminal will be about the same size as the existing one, which was built in the 1950s and upgraded several times since.

It will be designed to meet current building codes and provide adequate space for today's stringent security and baggage-screening requirements, White said.

In addition, new jetways will be able to reach the smaller planes now serving the airport, eliminating the need for passengers to walk across the tarmac to get to and from their flights.

If all goes as planned, construction will begin early next year and the new terminal will open in spring 2015.

Opposition

The project is forecast to be paid for by federal grants and by fees levied on airlines and airport users, combined with parking and concession income. However, $90 million will be raised through general obligation bonds, which would be backed by city tax funds if airport revenue falls short.

The vote was 6-1, with council member Michael O'Donnell in opposition. O'Donnell said he questioned whether there is substantial public support for the new terminal.

"I think there's pretty much a 50-50 consensus here in Wichita," O'Donnell said. "Everybody thinks we need a new airport, but people don't know if it's the right time to be building a $200 million project when we're in the worst economic situation since the Great Depression."

Former council candidate Clinton Coen said he thinks building a new terminal conflicts with the Affordable Airfares program, which spends $7 million a year in state and local subsidies to assure that the city is served by low-fare airlines.

"We created this Fair Fares program in an effort to increase traffic by subsidizing airfares," he said. "Well then we're going to increase costs to fly out of Wichita. We're going to increase concession costs, parking costs, rental car costs, lease costs and space rental costs, so we're going to drive up the price of tickets."

After the meeting, White said the airport is keeping its $4.50 passenger fee where it is and has "no plans to raise the parking fees any time soon."

He said it's impossible to tell whether raising landing fees or space rental for the airlines will affect ticket prices.

Fares change constantly and are affected by major variables such as fuel price, labor costs and supply and demand. Nationwide, airport fees and rentals make up about 4 percent of their cost of doing business, he said.

Minority businesses

Several African-American business owners and state Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, expressed support for the project but called for more guarantees that minority and disadvantaged businesses would have a chance at some of the work.

White told the council that the airport has taken steps to try to include minority firms, including holding a series of meetings for potential subcontractors. The airport staff has also arranged to distribute bid documents through minority business associations.

"We just want to let you guys know we're in support of the new terminal, we feel it's long overdue," said Michael Habtemariam. His family's company, Multi-Business Service Corp., runs concession and shuttle operations at the airport.

"We're encouraged that Victor has been so vigorously getting out there and trying to get people's attention, and we're also very glad to see that so many qualified DBEs and MBEs (disadvantaged and minority business enterprises) are ready, willing and able to participate on this project that will make Wichita proud."

But Brian Littlejohn, owner of Littlejohn and Sons Hauling, said he's worried that the decisions on whether to use minority help will really be in the hands of the project's primary contractors.

"My problem is while minority participation is strongly encouraged, it's not really working," he said. "At the end of the day, it seems to me it's all about who you know."

White replied that the airport can't do much more than encourage inclusion of minority subcontractors.

"If it's federally funded we cannot require any set-asides, we cannot have any local preferences," he said. "But we certainly encourage it and would ask that general contractors make their best efforts to find subcontractors and ... suppliers that are representative of the community."

The council's two African-American members, Mayor Carl Brewer and council member Lavonta Williams, told White they expect the airport to maximize efforts to include minority firms.

"I want this to be transparent and I want it to be fair with everyone, OK?" Brewer said.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527.

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