Amid the intense debate about the potential privatization of Westchester County Airport, a group of business interests says the facts have been lost – and a crucial economic cog for the county could be put at risk.
At a press conference on Sept. 18, the Business Council of Westchester (BCW) announced the formation of the Coalition for Westchester Airport. It’s designed to build support for the county entering a long-term lease for a private operator to manage the Westchester County Airport while putting pressure on County Executive George Latimer and the Westchester County Board of Legislators to get such a deal done.
John Ravitz, executive vice president of the BCW, said the debate around privatization has been influenced by “scare tactics” of people against the change. The airport, he said, will not become “LaGuardia North,” but will be enhanced by a new operator with a proven track record and new vision.
Former Westchester County Executive Robert P. Astorino first proposed leasing the airport long-term to a private operator in 2016. Privatizing the airport would allow the county to use airport earnings – in the form of lease payments from the operator – on county services. The Federal Aviation Administration forbids an airport owner from using money an airport earns on things not directly related to the airport. Astorino previously argued that a private operator could also improve services at the airport.
Following a bidding process, Macquarie Infrastructure Corp. was selected as the airport’s private operator in November 2017 through a $1.1 billion public-private partnership. But by then, Astorino had lost his re-election bid and current County Executive Latimer was on his way into office.
The contract hasn’t been acted on by the board of legislators. Instead, Latimer held a series of public meetings over the summer focused on the airport’s governance and master plan. The county executive had said that he will let the board of legislators explore the privatization issue.
Ravitz said the new business-led coalition will try to add additional information to the debate that he feels was missing from discussions at the public hearing.
“We’re never going to say that the community around the airport doesn’t have concerns that should be addressed,” Ravitz said. “But the tenor and the volume of the rhetoric that have happened during the three public hearings the county executive had were filled with a lot of misnomers, and some of the groups really tried to use some scare tactics.”
But asked directly if the coalition will advocate for the exact terms of the 40-year lease with Macquarie previously selected by Astorino, Ravitz said the exact terms should be left to the county.
“What we’re saying now, in 2018, is let’s bring in an operator again that has the resources and the capacity to improve the quality of services within that airport,” he said.
Marsha Gordon, president and CEO of the BCW, said the coalition includes a range of businesses, labor organizations, educators, nonprofits and residents. The coalition has promised an information campaign to, as Gordon described it, “dispel the myths.”
A fact sheet handed out by coalition representatives at the press conference described those myths and facts. One myth, the flyer reports, was that the “Westchester County Airport would have more flights, more noise and more traffic.” To that, the coalition flyer notes a 2005 county law that limits the number of airline flights to four per half-hour with a maximum of 240 passengers per hour.
An additional flyer encouraging people to sign the coalition’s petition includes the logos of several Westchester companies, including Mastercard, Hilton Westchester, Million Air, Cappelli Organization and the Hudson Valley Gateway Chamber of Commerce.
“We have heard from a broad spectrum of companies – our major corporations, our midsize businesses, our small businesses – that this airport is essential to attracting talents, to retaining talent, so we need a strong airport,” Gordon said.