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In Our View/Paine Field Terminal

Let's not take a flying leap

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The lookie-loo is a familiar breed.
A retailer or real estate agent learns to politely tolerate these recreational browsers at shopping malls and open houses. They may have money in their pockets, and they may occasionally snap up a deal, but don't count on it.
It is premature to declare Allegiant Air a lookie-loo. But the airline certainly jammed its hands into its pockets and headed for the exit when it discovered that access to Paine Field would not be a freebie.
Allegiant informed Snohomish County it wants to build its own terminal for commercial flights, and it wants the Paine Field land for free, with no lease.
Quite properly, county council members quickly dismissed Allegiant's proposal.
Snohomish County wants to build the $3 million terminal itself and receive reimbursement through airline parking fees and concessions. And it insists the reimbursement be paid even if an airline pulls out.
That's the deal, emphasized Councilman John Koster. "They can take it or leave it."
This may be the time for a collective assessment of when it is wise for a public entity -- a state, a county, a tax district -- to commit serious money to construct and operate a proprietary enterprise.
Every region of our country, including the Pacific Northwest, is littered with ambitious, half-bankrupt projects of this ilk: sports complexes and symphony halls, public toilets, parking garages and upgraded airports.
This doesn't mean we should disparage all public spending meant to improve our communities and our quality of life. There have been numerous instances when tax money helped to dramatically transform places and systems and institutions. But we must curb our optimistic visions when it comes time to do the math.
Commercial aviation at Paine Field would get off on the absolute wrong foot if we gave away the land, forfeited control over construction and yielded management of the terminal to a single airline.
Last week's developments may serve to deflate some of the pumped up arguments about air traffic at Paine Field.
Opponents warn of congestion and burgeoning demand: once the dam gates open, numerous airlines will schedule dozens of flights daily. Likewise, advocates describe a rich, under-served market: commercial air traffic will spark commerce and boost the area's stature in the eyes of visitors and prospective employers.
The fact that Allegiant is willing to walk away from Paine Field, and that Alaska Airlines has likewise demurred, tells a different story. The market will tell us when a commercial airport has become both viable and imperative in Snohomish County.
The day approaches, but it has not arrived.

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