Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Fly by night

Toledo Express has problems, but giving away control of a valuable public asset for a pittance won’t solve them

A plan to privatize the operations of city-owned Toledo Express Airport could be a great deal — for the people who propose it. For the rest of the region, it wouldn’t. Mayor Mike Bell’s response to this flimsy scheme should already have been an emphatic “no.”

Dock David Treece, a 26-year-old investment adviser in West Toledo, proposes taking over airport operations from the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, which manages the troubled but still valuable (a replacement cost of more than $1 billion) facility. He seeks the right to “sell, lease, transfer, [or] assign” airport property, in return for taking responsibility for operating losses and sharing any profits the airport earns with the city. The rewards of this scheme simply do not warrant the public risk.

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The Bell administration has been in contact with Mr. Treece since April. But the mayor said he did not disclose these communications publicly until he was asked about them this week because “the city did not have a concrete plan.”

He’s got that right. A serious proposal would answer — publicly — such questions as: Who, besides Mr. Treece and evidently his father, makes up the “new, privately owned entity” he proposes to manage the airport? What kind of financial backing do they have? What is their detailed business plan to increase the airport’s competitiveness in attracting passenger and cargo traffic?

What are their qualifications to operate an airport? Do any of the principals have experience with airport management? If not, who will be hired to run Toledo Express?

What sort of liability insurance will the principals carry? What will happen to the airport’s current employees and tenants, including the Ohio Air National Guard’s 180th Fighter Wing?

Might Mr. Treece’s ideas about “urban renewal/​redevelopment” of Toledo Express violate Federal Aviation Administration rules that govern the use of federal grants to airports? Could the changes he envisions force the airport to repay millions in federal aid?

Mr. Treece warned in an email to a Bell administration official that “if we have to go to City Council to approve every deal, we won’t be successful.” He expressed a desire to “circumvent … various parts of the process.”

Such insistence on doing public business in private may satisfy Mayor Bell’s own penchant for official opacity. But it ought to raise a massive red flag before taxpayers. And the deal won’t look any better in the mayor’s second term, if voters give him one next week.

The mayor says he is receptive to Mr. Treece’s proposal. Again, Mr. Bell appears beguiled by would-be developers with big-sounding plans who prefer to operate in the shadows. The failure of redevelopment of the Marina District and the former Southwyck mall suggest the limits of that strategy.

Toledo Express is in trouble. It will lose money this year, and must rely on port authority tax subsidies. The number of passenger flights out of the airport dropped by three-fourths between 2007 and 2012. Passenger traffic reached another annual low last year.

But making the airport a prize in a scavenger hunt won’t strengthen its operations. Most of the factors that account for the airport’s problems are beyond the control of the port authority or any other operator.

Consolidation and competition within the U.S. airline industry favor large hub airports such as Detroit Metro, 50 miles from Toledo. Federal deregulation of the industry and the Great Recession have taken their toll.

It’s hard to see what a private operator of Toledo Express — especially one with as weak a proposal as this one — could do any better to address such unforgiving global factors, or to get a higher return on the resource. Taxpayers ought to let Mayor Bell, and any other politician who would give this airport scheme more than 10 seconds of consideration, know how they feel about giving away control of a valuable public asset to private interests: Don’t.

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