By Joanne M. Haas
MADISON — The Chippewa Valley Regional Airport manager says the state oozes dollars every time a western Wisconsin air traveler opts to begin a trip from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
“When you hop in your car (and) drive across the river, Wisconsin bleeds,” says Jerome J. Thiele, manager of the Eau Claire-based facility.
Wisconsin takes a hit of about $3 million per year, according to Thiele’s calculations of various taxes associated with air travel. He says the number expands to about $44 million when tallying the financial hits since the 1960s.
“The Chippewa Valley Regional Airport is Wisconsin’s closest commercial service airport to the Twin Cities,” Thiele says, noting the Twin Cities’ growth and pattern of that growth, along with the airport’s location, cast it as a possible engine for economic growth for the western area of the state.
“The Twin Cities is growing toward us,” Thiele says of the Chippewa Valley region, which includes Eau Claire, Chippewa and Dunn counties, as well as the counties hugging the St. Croix River that divides Minnesota and Wisconsin. “And we would like to take advantage of that.”
The two-runway facility employs 130 and is served by a single Minneapolis-based carrier offering five daily flights. Thiele’s goal is to transform the small operation into a metro-peripheral airport in the heart of an area known for its high-tech sector. Chippewa Valley has about 3 percent of the state’s population but 15 percent of the technical workforce., he says.
“Minnesota is pursuing this initiative right now,” he says of the metro-peripheral airport model, noting officials in that state are considering Duluth, Rochester, St. Cloud and Mankato. “It is time for us to step up to the plate and plan for this outer ring of the growth from the Twin Cities and take advantage of it.”
Thiele is one of 82 or so citizen lobbyists in the state Capitol this week as part of the 10th annual Chippewa Valley Rally, seeking support from legislators for proposals benefiting the region. He is after roughly $200,000 to $250,000 in state support of a comprehensive study to address how to transform the 130-employee airport into a traffic hub of western Wisconsin. The airport rests on 1,100 acres and features an 8,122-ft. long runway and another that is 5,000 feet in length.
A former employee of Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport, Thiele says he’s well aware of what marketing and changes can do to lure travelers. In recent years, Mitchell has positioned itself as a convenient alternative to the busy O’Hare International Airport in nearby Chicago.
Sounding a bit like Gov. Jim Doyle touting his “Grow Wisconsin” economic development strategy, Thiele calls the idea to invest in the Chippewa Valley airport a sure bet.
“It’s a win-win,” Thiele says, adding that such an expansion would create jobs. “We grow the airport. We generate new tax revenues. Wisconsin needs tax dollars. Wisconsin needs jobs.”