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Our Views: Loss of AirFest is another blow to local economy

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March 3, 2014

No Rock County resident should take joy in seeing Southern Wisconsin AirFest crash and burn. News last week that for the second year in a row the show won't go on should surprise no one, however.

Critics might suggest excessive prices doomed the event. Cynics might suggest that if you've seen one air show, you've seen them all. Still, you can't overlook the value and benefits that AirFest landed.

Those start with tourism dollars. For example, in 2009, when the show enjoyed good weather and attracted about 50,000 spectators, the Janesville Convention & Visitors Bureau pegged the economic benefits at $2.7 million. Those are big dollars in an economy still trying to rebound after the recession shut down Janesville's General Motors plant and its supplier companies.

AirFest also boosted the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport, which gets a hefty subsidy courtesy of county taxpayers. The event paid to use the airport, while the facility was able to showcase its amenities to aviation enthusiasts. Those were bonuses at a time when airport revenues lagged because the wide majority of industrial cargo business vanished amid the recession. The downturn also grounded much executive travel and pleasure aviation.

Finally, AirFest raised more than $400,000 through the years for the Wisconsin Aviation Academy. The nonprofit academy helps at-risk students raise educational skills and achievement through aviation activities.

Still, AirFest too often was unable to help the academy. Since 2004, AirFest broke even only five out of nine years, tax records show. Unpredictable weather was a constant issue. It didn't help that AirFest sometimes shifted dates from year to year in efforts to attract key acts. The event also faced competition from the larger air show down the road at Rockford, Ill.

Beloit's ABC Supply deserves credit for being AirFest's major sponsor. The event needed more sponsors, however, to avoid regular financial turbulence. For the second year in a row, AirFest was unable to land a commitment from a major U.S. act, either the Air Force Thunderbirds or Navy Blue Angels.

Executive Director Tom Morgan suggested last week that it's unlikely that AirFest will ever return to Rock County.

No one who cares about our community should take delight in that prediction.



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