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Worcester county to provide matching funds to bring new service to Salisbury airport

The Worcester County Commissioners last week pledged to provide some matching funds to a federal grant that will be used to attract a low-fare, nonstop airline service to the Salisbury Regional Airport.

Salisbury airport-planes

Planes are pictured parked at the Salisbury Regional Airport.
Photo courtesy Salisbury Regional Airport

By Bethany Hooper, Associate Editor

Officials in Worcester County last week pledged to provide some matching funds to a federal grant that will be used to attract a low-fare, nonstop airline service to the Salisbury Regional Airport.

Salisbury Regional Airport Director Tony Rudy told the Worcester County Commissioners on July 2 that his facility will be seeking grant funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Small Community Air Service Development Program this year to recruit a low-fare, nonstop airline service from the Salisbury airport to a major Florida destination. To make the application more attractive, he said he was seeking monetary matches from various jurisdictions and private-sector partners.

“We’re looking for a total local support of about $200,000, which will add to our $800,000 request to the DOT for the grant,” he explained, “So $1 million total.”

Officials noted that the $1 million would be used to incentivize the airline to provide nonstop trips to and from Florida, two or three times a week. The money, Rudy said, would be used to provide start-up and marketing support in its first years of operation.

“This is for a revenue guarantee that will basically help guarantee that the airline can get off to a successful start …,” he said. “All things being equal, you know airlines are looking at other service around the country, and airports are competing for the same service, so they’re often looking at the best support they can get from a community, including the revenue guarantee, which is kind of the last piece of the puzzle for the airport.”

Rudy said the airport was seeking $200,000, or a 20% match, from the community. As of Tuesday, the airport has received $60,000 in pledges.

“If we do fall short, we’re still going to apply for the grant,” he told the commissioners. “But we feel that that 20% is a good percentage for the DOT to consider … They look at that and see that the community has some skin in the game. And really successful grants that are awarded often do have that community support.”

Rudy added that the airport was simply seeking pledges. He noted that any money not used at the end of the agreement with the airline carrier would be returned.

When asked if Wicomico County had pledged any money, Rudy said he would be seeking $50,000 from the Wicomico County Council that evening. For his part, Commissioner Joe Mitrecic said he saw the service as a benefit to the residents of Worcester County. He then made a motion to match Wicomico County’s contribution.

“I think this would be, depending on where the actual final destination would be down there, it could be really huge for all the people of Worcester County,” he said.

Rudy noted that the Salisbury airport continued to lose passengers to other regional airports such as Baltimore-Washington International, where nonstop flights to Florida can be booked. He said bringing a nonstop service to the facility could bring some of those passengers back.

“Right now, we’re losing 80% of our passengers in the area to other airports,” he said. “Most people are going to BWI and flying on Southwest, and there are reasons for that. But we feel this is a great opportunity to capture some of that back … The Orlando area is our absolute top market, and we lose 64,000 passengers a year.”

Melanie Pursel, Worcester County’s director of tourism and economic development, spoke in support of the county match. She said she had spoken to several businesses, including Hardwire LLC and NASA Wallops Flight Facility, and that everyone had talked of the benefits it could bring to the area.

“This is not just a one-way benefit for the folks that are leaving our region to go to Florida. It’s actually reciprocal …,” she said. “To them, we can also look at this as a possibility to recruit additional contractor businesses to our business park, our industrial park in Pocomoke because we have this service available. So we look at it as a, you know, economic development tool, recruitment tool for new business and expansion.”

Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Amy Thompson agreed. She added that private-sector businesses have already pledged $25,000 to support the grant application.

“If other small regional airports around the country are kind of paying to attract these services, we’re kind of trying to play in the same sandbox,” she said.

Rudy noted that if the grant is awarded, and the airline chooses to operate from Salisbury, it would likely do so in January or February at the earliest. He said nonstop flights would be offered on Airbus A220 jets.

After further discussion, the commission voted 6-1 to approve up to $50,000 in funding, contingent upon Wicomico County’s contribution. Commissioner Jim Bunting opposed the motion, citing concerns about the airline’s lack of commitment to Salisbury Regional Airport.

“I’m not willing to commit to a dollar amount if they’re not willing to commit anything,” he said.