A new study commissioned by the Eastern Regional Helicopter Council touts East Hampton Airport as a vital economic engine—but the Quiet Skies Coalition quickly criticized its findings, as well as the timing of the study’s release, just before Election Day.
The study estimates that local spending by airport users in 2011 totaled $47.96 million and directly supported the equivalent of 647 full-time jobs. It was compiled by the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University’s Wagner School in collaboration with Appleseed, a New York City-based economic development consulting firm, and released last Wednesday, October 30.
Citing figures such as the distribution of flight takeoffs and landings, airport expenditures and revenues, and employment figures in the town, the report concludes that the airport is a “vital transportation asset” for the town, as well as a critical economic driver for the East End.
“If we think of second-home ownership and other leisure and hospitality activities as being East Hampton’s primary exports,” it states, “then the airport is perhaps the single most critical link connecting the town to its most affluent customers.” Spending by higher-end second-home owners and visitors supports a quality and diversity in retail, restaurants and other services that the town might otherwise not be able to sustain, it adds.
The $47.96 million in spending stems from an assumption that each flight into and out of East Hampton carries an average of three passengers, each of whom stays for an average of three days and spends an average of $500 per day.
Jeffery Smith, the vice president of operations and government affairs for the helicopter council, said on Monday that the impetus for the study was the opposition that has swirled around the airport and particularly the noise from its traffic, and that there was a need for data to show it is the asset that many government officials have called it. The council teamed up with airport users to conduct the study, which he said was paid for by “pro-airport” people and those who use the airport.
“I was actually blown away by these numbers,” Mr. Smith said of the money the study determined that the airport pumped into the local economy. He added that the figures do not include property taxes and rental fees.
Mitchell Moss, the director of the Rudin Center, on Monday stressed the finding of the airport as a gateway for people to come to East Hampton and contribute to the economy. Montauk Highway, he said, has some “intrinsic limits,” but having a “linkage by air” brings people to town who invest in property and the tax base. Its role in emergencies, such as for Medevacs and disasters, becomes even more key in an area with limited road connectivity, Mr. Moss said.
“You can’t help but be impressed by the huge contribution the airport makes,” he said.
But not everyone is impressed.
Kathleen Cunningham, the chairwoman of the Quiet Skies Coalition, which has lobbied for noise abatement at the airport, issued a statement on Monday blasting the study, which she said was commissioned to pave the way for unlimited helicopter traffic. She quoted academic experts and an urban policy and planning consultant as finding the study “scientifically flawed” and its conclusions “grossly misleading.”
Dr. T. James Matthews, professor emeritus at New York University in psychology and neural sciences, for example, called the study an “advertisement” for the airport. He was also quoted as saying, “Why would a serious review of the economic impact of airport operations not include the very countable number of dollars of real estate value lost by those whose homes are located under the noise-polluted flight paths crossing the East End?”
Mr. Moss declined to comment on the coalition’s comments, while Mr. Smith stressed the benefits that result from the airport and denied that the election played a role in the study’s timing.
Ms. Cunningham noted that the study was issued at a time when helicopter noise was a big issue in the East Hampton Town Board race, in which airport liaison Dominick Stanzione, whom she called the “darling of the helicopter industry,” was seeking reelection.
Mr. Stanzione on Monday declined to comment, saying he had not had a chance to review the report.
“That’s just politics,” he said of the coalition’s comments. “There shouldn’t be any politics at the airport and that’s politics at its worst.” Other reports, such as one released by the governor, have found that the airport contributes positively to the town, he added.