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Consultant Offers Suggestions for New Willard Governing Structure

An expert on the operation of airports says forming a local authority with funding by local taxpayers might be one way Willard Airport can cut costs.

Jack Penning, who's with Portland-based Sixel Consulting, is laying out this and other options that don't include the University of Illinois. He made his suggestions Tuesday before the annual meeting of Champaign County's Economic Development Corporation.

Penning said Willard simply doesn't compete well with other nearby airports, largely because it doesn't involve the community, whereas Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington is under the guidance of a local airport authority, and involves local property tax dollars.

"Because of that, there's a lot more community input into how the airport is run, because it's your neighbor running the airport," he said. "The airport here is run by the (U of I) Board of Trustees, which doesn't have single member from Champaign County outside of a student trustee. And so the people who use the airport, the people who live in Champaign County, really have very little say over how it's run."

Penning said in Bloomington, airlines pay about $1.50 per passenger, while they're paying more than $9 a passenger at Willard. He said the big difference is property taxes in Bloomington, as well as the U of I's wages and benefits to those who work at Willard.

Seamus Reilly co-chairs the EDC's airport committee. He said each of the consultant's suggestions offered greater possibilities for Willard.

"It's not so much that one or other governing structures is necessarily superior, but I think what came through was the fact that some of these other airports have a much stronger funding platform," Reilly said. "In other words, that they have money available and resources available to help develop the airport to move it forward."

Penning said the airport also has the option of being made part of the Champaign Urbana Mass Transit District, being operated through the Regional Planning Commission, or Willard could be operated by a private management firm. He didn't endorse one of the plans for Willard.

Penning's final report on Willard should be available for public review in about a month.